Archive for March 2002
March 30, 2002, Saturday Edition 1
By The Journal
Protesting villagers in Northumberland say they have been told that their community will not play host to hundreds of asylum seekers. The Angel Group, which runs refugee centres elsewhere in the country, bought Otterburn Hall last week from the YMCA, and local people feared up to 500 asylum seekers could be housed there. The firm’s chief executive Julia Davey yesterday met Ian Mackie, a member of the Otterburn and District Action Group, who says she pledged to continue to use the building as a hotel, conference and training centre. Mr Mackie said: “She said the hall would be retained as a hotel, conference and training centre, and they would be investing in the building and grounds. She also said it was the Angel Group’s intention to work with the community ‘so both parties prospered’.” Mr Mackie said Ms Davey had admitted the group had considered the possibility of using the hall as an accommodation centre for asylum seekers but realised it was not a practical idea. Action Group chairman Bryce Watson, said: “I want to see what happens at the end of 12 months. I still fear we will end up with asylum seekers. ” Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said: “It’s good we are getting some clarity at long last, but it would help if the Angel Group would just come out and tell everybody positively what is planned, to allay their fears.” No one from the Angel Group was available for comment last night.
THE JOURNAL (Newcastle, UK)
March 28, 2002,
People living in a remote Northumberland village are furious that Home Secretary David Blunkett could use emergency powers to allow an asylum seekers’ hostel to be set up on their doorstep. Otterburn residents learnt on Monday the Otterburn Hall hotel has been sold by owners the YMCA to The Angel Group, which already runs refugee centres all over the country. The residents say there are not enough facilties in their village to cope with a large influx of people. Yesterday Mr Blunkett spoke of his willingness to use emergency powers to speed up planning permissions for new centres. Although Otterburn Hall has not been named by the Home Office as one of its eight potential sites for such centres, residents are still worried after hearing from fellow campaigners in a Shropshire village. The Angel Group has bought a large property at High Ercall, Shropshire, and has told the local council of its plans to house 750 asylum seekers there. Bryce Watson, spokesman for the protesters, said villagers were appalled by the Government’s apparent willingness to speed through the planning process. A Home Office spokeswoman said the Government would still be obliged to consult on its plans for asylum seeker centres. Nobody from the Angel Group was available to comment yesterday.
THE JOURNAL (Newcastle, UK)
March 26, 2002
Villagers received the news they had been dreading yester- day when a firm which houses asylum seekers confirmed it had purch- ased a remote hotel and conference centre. The people of Otterburn have been living with the prospect of London-based accommodation provider the Angel Group buying Otterburn Hall for the past two months. They say a possible influx of 250 asylum seekers to live in the hall would be too large for a village of just 500 people to cope with. Yesterday, the hall’s current owner, the YMCA, revealed to staff that a sale had been concluded with a company called Thornminster Ltd, part of the Angel Group. The group has been in negotiations with the YMCA for several weeks, but the two sides undertook a confidentiality agreement not to comment on their talks. The 24 staff at the hall were briefed on the sale yesterday morning, and given a letter stating that the handover to Thornminster would happen on April 29. The staff’s terms and conditions will stay the same as with the YMCA. The letter stated: “… although Thornminster have considered using the hall as a base for asylum seekers, the appropriate consents for the change of use have not been given. Accordingly, they are considering various possibilities including using the hall as a conference or training centre.” But the planning authority responsible for the site, Northumberland National Park, said yesterday it had not received any applications, so had not made decisions on a possible change of use. A spokesman for the Angel Group declined to comment on the sale, but the chairman of the YMCA company which owns the hall, Arthur Falconer, confirmed it had been agreed at a price close to its market value. Mr Falconer said: “The potential use could be for the purpose of asylum seeker accommodation, as that is some of the business the Angel Group is involved in, but they have also indicated alternative uses including for the use of their own organisation.” Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said he had hoped the Angel Group would have given information on its plans for Otterburn Hall. He said: “It’s most extraordinary. I can’t believe they don’t know what they are going to do with the building. We are talking about an experienced property company paying, we assume, over 1m for a building for which they have not decided the future use, or established a future income stream. I urge them to come forward, behave responsibly and tell the local community what is planned.” Villager Bryce Watson, who has help- ed lead the action group on Otterburn Hall, said: “We are still in complete limbo. Everything hangs in the balance until we find out what the Angel Group’s plans are.” Kevin Appleby, 41, of Willow Green, Otterburn, said: “There’s nothing for asylum seekers here. No facilities at all.”
EVENING CHRONICLE (Newcastle, UK)
March 14, 2002,
Hexham MP Peter Atkinson has called for more openness over proposals to house 250 asylum seekers in a tiny Northumberland community. More than 100 people turned out for a public meeting about the possible housing of asylum seekers at Otterburn Hall. Hexham MP Peter Atkinson expressed his frustration at the hall’s owners, the YMCA, failing to provide answers on their plans for the hall. Mr Atkinson said the Angel Group’s managing director Julia Davey had talked to the YMCA staff, yet nobody in Otterburn had been notified of the plans.
Home Office didn’t know who was at riot inferno refugee centre; Leaked letter reveals Chief Constable’s fury at Yarl’s Wood security failures
MAIL ON SUNDAY
March 10, 2002
BYLINE: Martin Smith
ONE OF Britain’s top policemen has launched a scathing attack on the Government in the wake of the riot and fire which caused GBP 38 million of damage to a flagship refugee detention centre. Bedfordshire Chief Constable Paul Hancock said his force’s investigation into the incident at the GBP 100 million Yarl’s Wood complex had been severely compromised because the authorities repeatedly failed to produce an accurate list of who was detained there. Mr Hancock also revealed that some of the detainees at Yarl’s Wood had been responsible for starting fires at other asylum centres but the offences were not recorded on files held by the Immigration Service or Group 4 Security, which runs the centre. His criticism of the regime at Yarl’s Wood will come as a huge embarrassment to the Home Office because such establishments are a central plank of Home Secretary David Blunkett’s vision of an effective system for dealing with migrants. Around 70 per cent of the record 80,000 would-be refugees arriving in Britain every year are eventually judged to have no valid claim for asylum and Mr Blunkett aims to remove up to 2,500 a month. He wants to build a number of centres modelled on Yarl’s Wood to house refugees until they can be deported. But the attack from Mr Hancock in a hard-hitting letter to Home Office Minister John Denham reveals serious security flaws at Yarl’s Wood and raises concerns over Government policy to open similar centres. In it he warns that ‘potentially significant public policy issues’ had emerged during the police investigation which would have ‘potential impact on other similar detention centres’. The confidential letter, a copy of which has been seen by The Mail on Sunday, was written by Mr Hancock on February 22, a week after the devastating Yarl’s Wood fire. It is believed 21 refugees are still missing as a result of the incident at the centre near Bedford during which police came under ‘ concerted attack’ by some of the 385 detainees, most of them failed asylum seekers. The riot is said to have started after a row over medical treatment for a 55-year-old Eastern European woman. There was a confrontation when she was handcuffed as she was about to leave the complex. Police who were called in by Group 4 came under attack from a hail of missiles and shortly afterwards a fire broke out in the control room area, with another started elsewhere. The huge blaze raged for 12 hours, destroying Delta and Charlie wings mixed accommodation blocks for women and children. But in his letter Mr Hancock states: ‘It has to date proved difficult to establish with complete confidence which detainees were on the premises at the time of the offences. ‘One week after the incident the Immigration Service and Group 4 have not been able to provide a totally definitive list which the senior investigating officer feels able to unreservedly rely on. ‘If any bodies were found to be on site this lack of a definitive record will have significant impact on our casualty bureau’s efficiency. This I believe raises issues concerning the adequacy of the record-keeping process that may apply to other similar centres.’ Turning to the past offending of some of the refugees, Mr Hancock writes: ‘It is becoming clear that there have been detainees on the site with significant records for serious and violent offences. We were not aware of their presence.’ He said when Yarl’s Wood was opened, just a month before the blaze, his force offered to conduct criminal record checks on all detainees but this was rejected by the Immigration Service. Mr Hancock’s letter continues: ‘There are indications that certain of the detainees in Yarl’s Wood had set fires at other detention centres previously. ‘Details of the incidents do not appear to have been adequately recorded on the detainees’ files. Again, this raises issues of safety which may have implications elsewhere.’ Mr Hancock said his officers also found there was no clear evacuation plan for the site. He writes: ‘We have a local contingency plan but the Immigration Service and Group 4 each claim the responsibility rests with the other. ‘Again, in the interests of safety, you may wish to reassure yourself there is clarity on this issue at other similar sites as well as Yarl’s Wood.’ Now a row has erupted as to who will pay to rebuild Yarl’s Wood. Mr Hancock’s letter came just 24 hours after Capita McLaren, the loss adjusters working for Group 4’s insurance, wrote to Bedfordshire police saying they planned to sue the force for the cost of the damage. The claim is being made under the rarely-used 1886 Riot Damages Act, which allows companies and individuals to sue the police over damage caused during civil disturbances. But the legal move prompted a furious response from Bedfordshire police authority who said it was ‘quite outrageous’ and they aimed to resist it vigorously. They have been supported by Alistair Burt, Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire, who said the police were certainly not to blame for what happened at Yarl’s Wood. ‘If this is the law of insurance then I am a banana,’ he added. Fire chiefs believe the blaze would have been averted if the Home Office had followed their advice and installed a sprinkler system. As it was, the structure of the building timber frames and polyurethane foam panels meant the fire spread very quickly. Last night, in response to Mr Hancock’s letter, Home Office Minister Jeff Rooker said in a statement: ‘The police and the Immigration Service have a hard task in a difficult inquiry. ‘I am grateful for Bedfordshire Police’s tremendous efforts and dedication during the incident itself and in the continuing investigation. I hope I have been able to reassure the Chief Constable on many points but I recognise there is a lot to work through.’ The Home Office said that with regard to detainees with criminal backgrounds, ‘immediate steps have been taken to risk-assess those currently in detention, and those assessed as high-risk have been moved to prisons.’ A spokeswoman said that all people being detained were now being checked for criminal records. The Mail on Sunday can also reveal that a proposed new refugee complex in the picture-postcard Shropshire village of High Ercall will include a swimming pool, mosque, supermarket and post office. The scheme has prompted a storm of protest from local residents, who four months ago were assured by the Home Office that it had been abandoned. But last week the owners of the site, The Angel Group, a private company, unveiled new proposals to the fury of the High Ercall Action Group.
THE JOURNAL (Newcastle, UK)
March 9, 2002
An mp last night called for the owners of Otterburn Hall to end the secrecy surrounding the possible housing of asylum seekers there. Villagers in the 500-strong community of Otterburn in Northumberland had been worried by reports of a possible influx of up to 250 people, said Hexham MP Peter Atkinson. Page 138 Home Office didn’t know who was at riot inferno refugee centre;Leaked letter reveals Chief Constable’s fury at Yarl’s Wood security failures MAIL ON SUNDAY March 10, 2002 He called on the hall’s owners for the past 16 years, the YMCA, to reveal what plans had been discussed with London-based accommodation provider The Angel Group, and any other parties. The Angel Group has been linked with Otterburn Hall after Wearside charity The Lazarus Foundation decided not to pursue the opportunity. Neither the YMCA, nor the Angel Group were prepared to comment about plans last night. On the eve of his appearance at a community meeting about the issue in Otterburn, Mr Atkinson said: “The YMCA at Durham have apparently inserted a confidentiality clause in the whole arrangement. That’s what the Angel Group told me. “There appear to be two scenarios, one to have asylum seekers’ accommodation, and two for the hall to be a training centre for refugees who have been given the right to stay.” Mr Atkinson said the Angel Group’s managing director Julia Davey had visited the hall and talked to the YMCA staff, yet nobody in Otterburn had been formally notified of what plans were afoot. He said: “Between the YMCA and the Angel Group, you would think they would be able to tell the villagers about what is happening. Why don’t they say anything?” Mr Atkinson said he respected the need for commercial confidentiality, but the two parties’ silence on the hall’s future was causing unnecessary anxiety. The Journal first revealed outline plans to house asylum seekers in Otterburn more than a month ago. A YMCA trustee confirmed then the hall was up for sale. The Northumberland National Park authority said yesterday they had not received any applications to change the use of Otterburn Hall. Today’s meeting will start at 10am in Otterburn village hall, with county councillor John Riddle also in attendance.
THE JOURNAL (Newcastle, UK)
March 9, 2002,
A company which places a asylum seekers has made a bid for Otterburn Hall, it has been revealed. London-based The Angel Group is bidding for the 1.4m YMCA-owned Otterburn Hall but Hexham MP Peter Atkinson is lobbying the Home Office to prevent it from going ahead.