Home Office warned over accountability gaps in Yarl's Wood private contracts

Watchdog suggests Home Office and NHS England tighten joint-working arrangements in future outsourcing deals

Yarls Wood immigration Removal centre in Clapham near Bedford. Image: PA

By Jim Dunton

07 Jul 2016

New split contracts that have brought multiple private providers in to run the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire have created problems that should serve as a warning for similar future deals, according to the National Audit Office.

In a just-published report, the public finance watchdog said new contracting arrangements at the centre –  which houses mostly women awaiting deportation, and was the subject of allegations of abuse in an undercover report filmed by Channel 4 News – had resulted in gaps in service provision “in part because there was a lack of clarity about which contractor was responsible for what”. 

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The NAO said it had looked specifically at the success of contracting arrangements under which Serco provides services for the Home Office and G4S provides healthcare services on behalf of NHS England.

It said that while NHS England had “brought healthcare expertise” to Yarl’s Wood, it did not have a good understanding of the particular needs of residents when it designed the service specifications, particularly in relation to mental health services.

The NAO also said that the Home Office had failed to incorporate lessons from earlier HM Inspectorate of Prisons reports when it agreed the specifications of Serco’s latest contract, which commenced last year.

The report said staffing levels at the centre had reduced and that the new contract arrangements had resulted in worse conditions for residents in at least one area. It cited increased incidences of female residents being handcuffed for hospital visits as a particular example.

"It is important that services for vulnerable people, like those at Yarl's Wood, are delivered 'right first time' and this did not happen” – NAO head Amyas Morse

Among the report’s recommendations were the creation of a shared key performance indicators between contractors responsible for running interdependent services like those at Yarl’s Wood, and better handover briefings for new providers.

“Where multiple organisations are responsible for providing a service, the departments involved should agree how they will resolve issues that appear to fall between contracts or create unforeseen interdependencies between multiple services,” it said.

“This should include timescales for resolving issues, for example, on an issues log.

“It is unlikely to be possible to identify all of the interdependencies between services in advance, so it is important to agree the approach to resolving these issues when they emerge.

“It may also be helpful for suppliers to develop cooperation agreements, particularly where they depend on each other for aspects of the services they provide.”

"Vulnerable people"

NAO head Amyas Morse said that while work was taking place to address the problems identified at the Yarl’s Wood, residents had been failed by the initial arrangements.

"It is important that services for vulnerable people, like those at Yarl's Wood, are delivered 'right first time' and this did not happen at Yarl's Wood,” he said.

NHS England said the report had acknowledged improvements to healthcare facilities at Yarl’s Wood since it took over responsibility for commissioning in September 2014. A spokeswoman added that a new clinical records system had been introduced to allow residents’ health needs to be “more accurately understood”.

G4S managing director for public services John Shaw said the firm still had “work to do” to continue to improve the overall service to detainees, “particularly in terms of better joint-working across all agencies”.

He added: “While this report acknowledges that many measures to secure value for money do not easily apply to services for people who may be vulnerable, we are committed to striving to work better together with partners at Yarl’s Wood.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said its contract at Yarl’s Wood was designed to ensure that a “broad spectrum of services” was delivered to a defined standard and that the department was working with Serco and G4S to ensure improvements were delivered in line with an agreed HMIP action plan.

Julia Rogers, managing director of immigration at Serco, said the firm had already addressed the key NAO findings that related to its work at Yarl’s Wood.

“We understand and appreciate the vulnerability of the people in our care and the legitimate concerns that many people and organisations have about them,” she said.

Rogers added that none of the investigations had found a “culture of abuse” at Yarl’s Wood.

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