Asylum riot blamed on rush to build £74m centre

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A devastating riot and fire at an asylum removal centre was blamed yesterday on the Government cutting corners as it tried to deport thousands of rejected asylum-seekers.

A devastating riot and fire at an asylum removal centre was blamed yesterday on the Government cutting corners as it tried to deport thousands of rejected asylum-seekers.

Three months after it opened as the symbol of the Home Office's "get tough" approach, the £74m Yarl's Wood centre, which has been dogged by allegations of racism and brutality, was half-destroyed by detainees.

A damning official report said the building of the "astonishingly flimsy" centre near Bedford had been rushed and its destruction was the consequence of an "ambitious and unachievable" policy to remove 30,000 failed asylum-seekers a year.

Stephen Shaw, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, concluded that Yarl's Wood, which was run by Group 4, was "poorly designed and not fit for purpose". He discovered that the decision not to fit a sprinkler system in the building was taken by Jack Straw when he was Home Secretary.

With numbers of asylum-seekers growing and an election fast approaching in 2000, the Government announced a plan to deport 30,000 asylum-seekers a year, which would mean thousands being held in new detention centres such as Yarl's Wood before their rapid removal. The target was abandoned by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.

Mr Shaw said: "The need to deliver new detention places very quickly affected the planning, commissioning, design and construction of Yarl's Wood. "There was pressure both from ministers and senior officials. The immediate consequences were to fast-track the planning process and to rule out a private finance initiative competition." The process, conducted at "break-neck speed", resulted in a poorly designed building made of wood and concrete and rooms leading off from dark corridors.

Mr Shaw said: "It simply defeats me that anybody with Prison Service or immigration detention experience could have considered the building would be sufficiently robust."

The riot - the worst at a place of detention for 16 years - was triggered when an African woman was restrained by staff after she tried to join men at a church service on 14 February 2002. Mr Shaw concluded that the "everyday" incident could have been stopped from going out of control with "an earlier intervention or show of force". But officers retreated, losing keys and a radio, and some were held hostage while detainees escaped. Some of them have never been recaptured.

The report disclosed that there had been a number of previous skirmishes, confrontations, food refusals and protest meetings at Yarl's Wood. The operators were unable to keep detainees occupied with paid work because removal centres had not been made exempt from minimum wage legislation.

The ombudsman has previously said some staff were racist and used abusive language. He raised concerns about the vetting of employees and said one was a British National Party member.

Mr Blunkett said yesterday: "It is easy to be wise with hindsight but I readily acknowledge the weaknesses in design and materials identified by Stephen Shaw existed and made the centre more vulnerable."

* A separate Home Office investigation into an outbreak of violence in July at the Harmondsworth removal centre in west London concluded that its "boring regime" had contributed to the disturbance.

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