The home secretary and permanent secretary of the Home Office have been taken to task by an influential committee of MPs, which has said the two appeared to have given “inaccurate information” about conditions in two refugee holding centres during the pandemic.
Home Affairs Select Committee chair Yvette Cooper said the committee is prepared to release a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration into conditions at Napier Barracks and Penally Camp, which she said appears to contradict evidence given to the MPs by home secretary Priti Patel and Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft.
In February, MPs on the committee were outraged to hear 178 asylum seekers had contracted Covid-19 in a month while held at Napier Barracks, and that people were being held in dormitories sleeping up to 28 people.
Patel and Rycroft both told MPs the department had Public Health England advice on preventing the spread of coronavirus, including spacing beds two metres apart, and that the number of people sharing dorms had later been reduced.
But in its initial findings following an inspection of the sites, ICIBI said in March that PHE had advised the Home Office that dormitory-style accommodation at Napier was not supported by current guidance, and that the sites had been opened before the department had implemented its recommendations.
The inspector also said a large-scale coronavirus outbreak was “inevitable” once one person became infected “given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier”. ICIBI will later complete a full report on the inspection.
The use of Napier Barracks as asylum accommodation is currently the subject of a High Court challenge, with inspectors arguing at a hearing last month that the buildings are "impoverished, run down and unsuitable".
ICIBI has also provided a copy of an inspection report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons to the Home Office. In a letter to Patel on 23 April, Cooper demanded that the Home Office formally provide a copy of the HMIP report to the committee, along with any correspondence with the inspector.
And she reminded Patel: “As you will recognise, it is extremely important that the Home Office, both ministers and officials, gives accurate information to this committee.”
She wrote: “Given the evidence of a clear contradiction between the information you and the permanent secretary gave to the committee on 24th February and the findings of the ICIBI, please can you explain why you either believe the ICIBI’s finding is wrong or confirm that PHE guidance was not followed in September. Please can you also take this opportunity to make any corrections to the information given to the committee.”
She also demanded a copy of the PHE’s assessment of dormitory and shared bedroom accommodation, and any other correspondence and advice shared between the Home Office and the public-health body before the two asylum-seeker sites were opened.
A second letter, sent on 12 May, said Patel had failed to respond. “We are extremely concerned that we have still had no reply from you, especially on a matter where evidence suggests we have been given inaccurate information,” Cooper wrote.
She said the home affairs committee had obtained a copy of the HMIP report, which it believed it “should publish in the public interest”.
ICIBI reports are submitted to the department, which publishes them alongside its own response. However, the Home Office has missed its own target for publishing reports within eight weeks of receiving them in the majority of cases over the last year.
The Home Office had previously declined to share the report with HASC on the grounds that litigation was taking place.
The letter, which was published last week, asked Patel to give a date on which she and Rycroft could provide further evidence “on this and other matters”.
“We take very seriously the importance of the committee being given accurate information by the Home Office and receiving responses to our questions,” she wrote.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “While pressure on the asylum system remains we will continue to make use of Napier Barracks," and added that asylum seekers are "staying in safe, suitable, Covid-compliant conditions".
“The ICIBI’s interim findings do not contradict the evidence the permanent secretary and home secretary gave on 24 February. Throughout the setup and operation of the site, the Home Office has engaged with health officials in various organisations to ensure it is fully aware of the most thorough and up-to-date advice," the spokesperson said.
"We have not yet received the ICIBI’s final inspection report on contingency asylum accommodation."