Inspectors have delivered a damning verdict on Covid protection, fire safety and living conditions at Home Office accommodation for asylum seekers, finding “fundamental failures of leadership and planning”.
Both HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and the independent chief inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) visited Napier barracks in Folkestone and Penally camp in Pembrokeshire last month. A follow-up visit to Napier was carried out last week.
The initial findings were published on Monday. Evidence is still being gathered and the full findings will be published at a later date.
The inspectors highlighted concerns about the lack of Covid security in barracks accommodation with communal sleeping arrangements of up to 28 people in one block. It was revealed recently that almost half of those at Napier – 198 people – contracted Covid in January and February of this year.
The chair of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, said the preliminary findings were damning. “This shocking report from the ICIBI shows just how unsuitable, unsafe and inappropriate this accommodation was for long-term accommodation in a pandemic,” she said.
According to inspectors, Public Health England had advised the Home Office in September and October 2020 that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier “was not supported by current guidance”.
Both they and Public Health Wales expressed concerns about the Covid safety of the accommodation. Both sites were opened before Public Health Wales and Public Health England recommendations about making the barracks as Covid safe as possible had been actioned.
The Home Office gave contractors just two weeks to make the barracks operational.
None of the residents at Napier who responded to a survey by the inspectors felt they had been kept safe from Covid-19. At Penally, which accommodated fewer people, the vast majority still did not feel they were being kept safe from the risk of infection.
The Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate raised serious concerns about safety at Napier that had not been fully addressed at the time of the ICIBI/HMIP inspection visit. The work recommended by the fire inspectorate at Penally had been largely completed.
The inspectors found that managers at both sites lacked the experience and skills to run large-scale communal accommodation and the Home Office did not exercise adequate oversight at either site.
At both sites about a third of respondents said they had mental health problems; about a third of respondents at Napier said they had felt suicidal.
People at high risk of self-harm at Napier were located in a decrepit “isolation block” which inspectors considered unfit for habitation. Residents who may have been children were also housed in the same block pending an age assessment.
Cooper said: “The Home Office told the home affairs committee that they were following public health advice at every stage of the process yet the ICIBI says that both sites were opened before public health recommendations had been actioned. How could the Home Office have allowed this to happen?
“The Home Office must immediately publish all the public health advice they received before deciding to use the barracks and explain why they told the select committee they were operating in line with the guidance when this report is clear that they weren’t. This report is also a damning criticism of the leadership and culture of the Home Office.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “During these unprecedented times we have met our statutory duty to provide asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, with suitable accommodation and three meals a day all paid for by the British taxpayer.
“We expect the highest possible standards from our service providers and have instructed them to make improvements at the site.”