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.