Home Office told to 'get a grip' on Manston asylum centre

Watchdog's report reveals litany of problems at processing centre as minister says asylum system 'will not be fixed overnight'
Manston short-term holding centre, where some people have been detained for over a month. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The prisons watchdog has told the Home Office to "get a grip" on problems at the Manston processing centre and ensure asylum seekers are housed in "humane and decent conditions".

Charlie Taylor, HM chief inspector of prisons, urged the department to make “suitable provisions” to move people to proper asylum accommodation as quickly as possible as he published a report which found detainees' "welfare and dignity" have been harmed by the way the centre is being run.

The report shared the findings of an inspection in July of the Manston, as well as the Western Jet Foil centre in Dover, which was the site of a petrol-bomb attack over the weekend. The inspection found "substantial problems and challenges" at the two centres, including "weak" governance of areas such as safeguarding and healthcare.

Taylor said people were being detained for "far too long" at Manston, and described seeing "exhausted detainees forced to sleep on floor mats between rows of seats or on wooden benches".

However, the length of time some people are being detained at the centre has increased massively since Taylor's June report, when he said the longest recorded period of detention was more than 70 hours. A senior Home Office official revealed last week that some people were being held in the "short-term" holding facility for a month – despite the legal limit being 24 hours.

Taylor's report also found officials at the centre were failing to record important information about detainees' vulnerability.

"Detainees with disabilities and trafficking victims were held at Manston, but no detainees had been designated as adults at risk," the report said.

The inspection also found detainees were searched "too many times and not always with sufficient sensitivity by Home Office staff", and that some were refused access to a phone to let their families know they were safe, with no explanation.

In the report, Taylor described "weak" governance of healthcare processes, saying medical-services contractor Medevent's management of controlled drugs was "particularly poor and breached standards for the safe storage of medicines".

"The lack of single leadership oversight and consistent coordination of agencies at Manston and between Manston and the other sites presented risks to the vulnerability and welfare of detainees," he said.

"Inconsistent practices affected detainees’ welfare and dignity," the report added.

Taylor told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that he intends to make a “swift return” to Manston for another inspection and expects to see “substantial improvements”.

"The Home Office and contractors need to get a grip, they need to speed up the processing of migrants, they need to make suitable provisions so people can be moved off-site as quickly as possible and housed in humane and decent conditions," the inspector said.

Asylum system 'will not be fixed overnight'

Taylor's intervention came after immigration watchdog described conditions in the Manston asylum centre as "wretched", with overcrowding and outbreaks of diseases such as diphtheria and scabies.

Home secretary Suella Braverman has faced growing pressure over the situation at the processing centre after reports the former military base in Kent, designed to accommodate 1,600 people, had at its peak held around 4,000.

But transport secretary Mark Harper said this morning that there is "no simple solution" to easing pressures at Manston.

He said the Home office has made "progress" to reduce numbers, but that solutions are "not going to happen overnight".

"I know it is now a priority for [the immigration minister] and the home secretary to enable us to get migrants out of that site faster than they are arriving to reduce the pressure," he told Sky News.

"That has started to happen but of course, it is reasonable to say it is not going to happen overnight. There are no simple solutions here.

"They're very difficult. The government is putting the steps in place to procure more accommodation."

Andy Baxter, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, which represents 170 members working on the site, said those held at the camp have started making threats of self-harm and hunger strikes as they demand answers over their treatment.

"Our members are facing threats from people constantly saying 'What's happening to me? Where am I going? When will I be getting moved on?'," he said.

And a spokesperson for the British Red Cross urged the Home Office to take "immediate action... to ensure that the men, women and children who have just made a dangerous and potentially traumatic journey have their basic needs met in a safe environment".

"No one should experience overcrowded accommodation that puts them at risk of disease and potentially being detained unlawfully," they said.

Braverman told MPs on Monday that she “has never ignored legal advice” about the centre.

Braverman continues to face criticism over her description of the record numbers of Channel crossings as an "invasion on the south coast" just a day after a firebombing attack on a migrant centre which is now being investigated by counter-terrorism police.

In a letter to The Times today, Indarjit Singh, a peer who sits on the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, called the home secretary's comments a "shameful incitement to hatred that should be deplored by all right-thinking people".

But Harper refused to directly criticise the comments, saying it was "important" for the public to have "confidence" in Braverman's focus on the issue.

"Every politician chooses to express themselves in the way that they do," he said.

"What is important is the home secretary was trying to convey to the House of Commons that she understood the scale of the challenge so that people at home who are concerned about this issue know it is an important priority for her to deal with this problem."

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who visited the site on Tuesday evening, insisted that numbers would continue to drop as the government increases its efforts to find alternative accommodation for the new arrivals.

"Unless we receive an unexpectedly high number of migrants in small boats in the coming days, numbers will fall significantly this week," he said.

"It's imperative that the site returns to a sustainable operating model and we are doing everything we can to ensure that happens swiftly."

John Johnston is a reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where part of this story first appeared

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