MPs have questioned how effective the Home Office’s efforts to reform its culture and "see the faces behind cases" in the wake of the Windrush scandal, after the department revealed 178 asylum seekers contracted coronavirus last month while held at an army barracks.
Appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday, Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft and home secretary Priti Patel insisted the department had taken steps to become more compassionate and open to scrutiny.
Patel said the department had a newfound commitment to empathy and “seeing the face behind the case”, while Rycroft told MPs it was undergoing a “top-to-bottom transformation” and making “great progress” on fulfilling all the recommendations of Wendy Williams’s review on the Windrush scandal.
But the revelation that people had being held in dormitories sleeping up to 28 people during the pandemic, as well as the witnesses’ reluctance to share advice the Home Office had received on coronavirus and asylum-seeker accommodation, led MPs to question whether this was really the case.
At Napier army barracks in Kent, where asylum seekers are being held, 178 people tested positive for Covid-19 in January. A further 19 have tested positive this month, adding up to 197 so far this year, Rycroft said.
Visibly shocked, committee chair Yvette Cooper responded: “Oh my god... that looks pretty clear evidence to me that those dormitories were not Covid-safe if you managed to generate within them 178 positive cases, presumably that would have affected staff who live in the local community as well.
“On what planet did you think in the middle of a Covid crisis it was safe or sensible to put over 20 people in a dormitory so they're all sleeping together in the same room with the same air overnight each night?”
Cooper pressed the witnesses to explain how the conditions aligned with the Home Office’s goals to be more compassionate and empathetic.
“Given what you said at the beginning about seeing the face behind the case, do you really think, home secretary and ps, that the Home Office saw the faces of those people who you put in that unsafe accommodation, behind their cases?” she asked.
Patel responded: “Yes, absolutely, because every single individual that comes into the care, the estate of the Home Office, they have personalised support and that happens at the initial stages of their own personal assessments. We should bear that in mind.”
She added that a “range of factors” had to be borne in mind when mitigating the spread of coronavirus in asylum accommodation, adding that “people do mingle” and flout rules.
Yvette Cooper said said Patel's apparent attempt to blame asylum seekers for the outbreak was an “astonishing response”.
Both Patel and Rycroft said the Home Office had followed the advice of Public Health England on preventing the spread of coronavirus, including spacing beds two metres apart. The number of people sharing dorms had later been reduced, and people who had tested negative for the virus were moved to separate accommodation.
Asked whether PHE had explicitly said it was safe for 28 people to sleep in the same room, neither said this was the case but both witnesses insisted the department had followed the public-health body’s advice “at every stage”. Pressed further, Rycroft said PHE “don’t do those sorts of approvals”.
“They don’t certify that certain conditions do or do not meet their standards, what they do is they give advice and they gave advice on how to make the circumstances of the Napier barracks Covid-safe and that is the advice that we followed,” he added.
Cooper noted that newspaper reports had suggested PHE had judged the 28-person dorms to be “inappropriate”, but Rycroft insisted this was not the case.
Asked whether PHE’s advice was publicly available, Rycroft said he would need to look into whether it could be published. “There’s all sorts of advice that you can see, there are also ongoing court cases that it would be wrong for me to prejudice,” he said.
Two recent court cases have led to asylum seekers to be moved out of Napier barracks. In one case, the claimant's legal team described conditions at the "initial accommodation" centre as "overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsuitable" and "prison-like".
When Cooper later asked if he would agree to publish the public health advice on Napier Barracks given his earlier statements in the session that the Home Office would be “open to scrutiny”, he said: “I can commit, subject to the ongoing court cases, to provide as much transparency as possible.”
He also said he would need to check whether it would be possible to share two more pieces of advice the committee asked to see – an independent review of asylum accommodation, and a report on accommodation in Glasgow.
Rycroft said he would look into the matter, but that because those two pieces of work were “private advice” to inform the department’s work, “we wouldn’t routinely make them public”.
‘A wake up call’
During the session, Rycroft told MPs yesterday that the Windrush scandal had been a “real wake-up call” on the need to change the culture of the Home Office.
“Wendy Williams’ review sets the course with her 30 recommendation and we are making good progress towards fulfilling all of those recommendations,” he said, referring to the review carried out by the former police watchdog nearly a year ago.
He cited a new vision for the department – to “build a UK that is safe, fair and prosperous” – and values that have been implemented in recent months, and said structural changes were on the way.
Patel said that since the review, her department had implemented staff training “to make sure that they have empathy”, to improve communications and the way people are asked to provide evidence for immigration applications, and to improve her staff’s understanding of people’s cases and circumstances.
“There have also been team changes. And all of that, naturally, is to make this process not just simpler, but clearer and actually more humane,” Patel told the committee.
“There has been a fundamental legacy issue in the Home Office with regards to Windrush, but actually more broadly, I think, around casework. This is something Matthew and I speak about on a daily basis. There’s no question, this is part of a wider change and the wider reform that is taking place at the Home Office in terms of how we review cases.”