Asylum centre extension 'like an oppressive prison'

Plans to create Europe's biggest asylum removal centre at Heathrow Airport have been condemned by inspectors, who say detention conditions will be like an "oppressive prison".

The controversial extension to Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre will more than double the number of refugees and immigrants held there from 259 to 623 when the new wing opens next month. The super-removal centre was brought in by Labour as part of its policy of deporting more failed asylum seekers at faster rates.

But a report published today by Dame Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons, says that this would provide "prison-type accommodation, in small and somewhat oppressive cells – at odds with the atmosphere and facilities in the current centre."

Ms Owers added: "It would also double the population, making Harmondsworth the biggest removal centre in Europe. This combination will pose a considerable challenge to managers in seeking to embed recent progress and run a single, safe and decent centre."

Her findings are echoed by the detention centre's official monitoring agency, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), which has been granted unsupervised visits to Harmondsworth.

In its annual report the board says it "deplores the fact that new wings built at Harmondsworth offer lower standards of decency than the facilities they replace."

The report, published yesterday, found: "The new rooms, to be shared by two people, are based on prison cells, with toilets located inside the room, behind limited screening."

Harmondsworth has had a troubled history and in 2006 the Chief Inspector branded it the worst immigration removal centre the watchdog had ever inspected.

Since then, inspections have charted a slow but steady progress from this low point. However, Ms Owers said the opening of a new block, doubling the size of the centre and built to higher security prison standards, would pose a challenge to these improvements.

While Ms Owers' report noted that progress had been made in the conditions of detention and the relationship between staff and detainees, the inspectors found serious concerns about the quality of healthcare.

The inspectors said that staff did not fully take into account evidence of mental ill-health or previous torture suffered by the detainees.

Inspectors also noted with concern that healthcare was unacceptably poor, in terms of the approach of healthcare staff and the quality and quantity of provision, particularly in relation to mental health and primary care. They said there was a need to improve procedures for monitoring and preventing suicide, self-harm and bullying.

Anne Owers said: "This is the most positive report we have issued on Harmondsworth. It reflects considerable work by managers and staff to improve the approach and provision at a difficult centre, with a mixed population, some of it very transient. This is to be commended. There is, however, further work to be done, both by the centre and the UK Border Agency."

David Wood, strategic director for criminality and detention at the UK Border Agency, said: "The expansion of Harmondsworth will allow the UK Border Agency to remove even more foreign criminals and failed asylum seekers. We will work with our contractors to make sure the improvements praised by the HMCIP report continue."