‘No culture of abuse’ at scandal-hit immigration centre but other problems ongoing

There is “no evidence of a culture of abuse” among current staff at a scandal-hit immigration centre but a string of ongoing problems still need attention, inspectors said.

The BBC Panorama programme broadcast undercover footage in September 2017 showing alleged assaults, humiliation and verbal abuse of detainees by officers at the G4S-run centre near Gatwick Airport in West Sussex.

It aired around 10 months after an inspection in 2016 by the prison watchdog.

In a report on the first inspection since the programme was broadcast, the chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke said: “We found no evidence that the abusive culture shown by the Panorama programme was present among the current staff group at Brook House.

“On the contrary, our detainee survey and interviews found that most detainees were positive about the way they were treated by staff.

“We found improved training of staff employed in the centre, whistle blowing procedures that staff members had confidence in, and a much-improved ratio of staff numbers to detainees.”

He said despite the “very serious problems” Brook House (pictured) has faced over the past two years, it was “to the credit of the leadership and staff that they have been determined to prevent any recurrence of poor behaviour or abuse, and to inject an appropriately respectful culture into the centre, supported by improved training, better supervision of staff, and positive relationships with the detainees”.

There was no evidence the previous inspection “could or should have found anything similar to what was exposed by the programme”, he added.

Inspectors judged the centre as “reasonably good” in all areas, noting the number of men held there has almost halved from 400 to 240 since 2016 and more staff have been hired.

But amid the praise, they found there was “still much to do”, highlighting concerns about the welfare of detainees and the restrictions they faced in custody, while the report showed the centre had failed to meet 19 recommendations made during the previous inspection.

Meanwhile charities hit out at news more than half of the people held at the centre during a six month period were then released back into the community rather than being deported, branding the detention “pointless cruelty” and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The complaints process was criticised after just one out of 95 made was upheld in the six months before the visits in May and June with the report saying replies often took an “unhelpfully defensive and legalistic approach”.

This was despite inspectors seeing “clear examples where a complaint should have been upheld”, adding that there had “clearly been the wrong decision” in some cases.

Instances of self-harm “had significantly increased” and last year nearly 100 detainees “had been on constant watch to prevent self-harm or suicide,” the report said.

Inspectors found 40% of the 67 detainees questioned by inspectors admitted feeling suicidal at some point during their time at the centre and recommended doctors report any concerns about detainees feeling suicidal to the Home Office.

“Sluggish casework and delays in obtaining suitable accommodation and travel documents prolonged detention” with evidence this affected wellbeing, the report added.

While “welfare provision was a strength of the centre and generally met the needs of detainees”, there were “still some unnecessary obstructions for detainees preparing either for their release or removal from the UK”.

This included “needlessly” blocking some websites like sites offering legal advice and information on immigration as well as some daily newspaper sites for “unfathomable reasons”.

The report added: “This has been a longstanding issue and resolution is well overdue.”

Inspectors also found “insufficient attention was paid to matters of equality and diversity” with “no systematic approach” to recording the protected characteristics of detainees.

The report said this needed to change after official data showed one LGBT detainee was held during 2019 but the survey by inspectors found five who said they were gay, six who were bisexual and seven who were transgender or transsexual.

Last month the Home Office failed in a bid to challenge a High Court ruling over the terms of an investigation into the alleged abuse at Brook House.

Following the Panorama programme, two former detainees – identified only as MA and BB – successfully argued that a full independent investigation into “systemic and institutional failures” was needed “to ensure fact-finding, accountability and lesson-learning”.

Fourteen members of G4S staff were dismissed or resigned following the broadcast, and the Home Office asked the prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) to carry out an investigation.

Mr Clarke’s report said the PPO inquiry has been delayed pending the legal action.

In July the National Audit Office found G4S made £14.3 million in profit from Brook House between 2012 and 2018.

The centre’s director Phil Wragg said he would review the recommendations made, adding: “I am immensely proud of the hard work G4S staff have put into consistently creating a safe, secure and friendly atmosphere for the men at Brook House.”

A Home Office spokesman welcomed the “recognition of the significant improvements” in the report, adding: “The events highlighted by Panorama in 2017 were shocking and since then we have strengthened our systems to ensure the safety and dignity of those detained are at the heart of what we expect from our providers.”

Detainees can escalate complaints to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman if they are not satisfied, the department added.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Gareth Fuller / PA Wire.