Serco and Home Office criticised over Yarl’s Wood failures

The outsourcing company Serco failed to provide enough staff or training at Britain’s biggest immigration removal centre for women, according to the government’s spending watchdog.

Serco has been criticised repeatedly for conditions at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire during its eight-year management of the facility that houses 410 women and their families who are being assessed for removal from the UK.

But although the National Audit Office report criticised Serco for failures including cutting staff by nearly a fifth and inadequate training, it said many of the problems were a result of poor contracts drawn up by the Home Office, which sanctioned the job cuts, introduced too many targets and failed to delineate responsibilities.

The NAO said that “significant improvements” had been made. There have been five independent reviews of Yarl’s Wood after serious concerns were raised in 2015 and an undercover Channel 4 documentary alleged a culture of abuse. Despite this, 35 per cent of the recommendations from the chief inspector of prisons in 2015 still had not been implemented, the NAO said.

The watchdog’s report covers the latest contract, which started in April last year and pays Serco £8.8m a year. Although significantly less than the previous £12.4m a year contract, it excludes healthcare at the facility, which was handed to rival outsourcer G4S, creating “gaps” between the two contracts and “no clear way to resolve them”.

Many of the savings came from staff cuts. The NAO said that Serco removed about a third of detainee custody officers, the middle tier of management and a deputy director post. Staff were trained to work in several different areas, rather than specialising, with overtime and agency staff used to fill gaps. Employees were also replaced with self-service kiosks for booking hospital appointments, visits and food.

The NAO warned that this meant there were “insufficient operational and management staff”, though Serco said it was in the process of “improving training for our staff, increasing the number of staff and working with others at the centre to improve . . . care”.

The company added it “will continue to work to ensure that [residents] are well looked after at this difficult time in their lives”.

Much of the NAO’s criticism was directed at the government’s contract management. It said the Home Office was in the process of cutting more than 120 performance targets to 30 after some of these proved counterproductive.

As an example, incidents of suicide and escape incur penalties of £30,000 and £10,000 respectively. But the high fines encouraged Serco staff to increase the use of handcuffs for hospital visits, with 11 per cent of women handcuffed after the target was introduced, compared with 3 per cent beforehand.

Although Serco could have received fines of £585,600 in the year to April for breaching performance targets, it instead paid only £56,000 after the government accepted there were mitigating circumstances.

Anyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “It is important that services for vulnerable people, like those at Yarl’s Wood, are delivered ‘right first time’ and this did not happen at Yarl’s Wood. We do though give credit for the work that is now taking place to address the problems.”

There are nine immigration removal centres across the UK; seven managed by the private sector and two by the government. In 2015, 3,969 people entered Yarl’s Wood from 111 different countries, including Iran, Eritrea, and Iraq. In March this year, the average length of stay ranged from one to 60 days, with the longest resident detained for 490 days.

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