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Home Office drops plan to house 200 asylum seekers in prefab-style accommodation at Yarl’s Wood

Refugee Action said it was ‘morally bankrupt to even consider’ the plan

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 10 February 2021 09:03 GMT
The Home Office's decision to drop the Yarl's Wood plans came a day before the launch of a legal challenge
The Home Office's decision to drop the Yarl's Wood plans came a day before the launch of a legal challenge (Getty)

The Home Office has dropped a controversial plan to house hundreds of asylum-seekers in prefab-style accommodation on the site of Yarl’s Wood removal centre, saying it no longer needed the additional capacity.

The department said that, after “careful consideration”, it had decided not use the site adjacent to the detention facility in Bedford to hold around 200 people seeking sanctuary in Britain.

The decision came a day before lawyers were set to take the Home Office to court over the plans, arguing that the government had cut corners by failing to obtain planning permission or carry out the necessary impact assessments in a rush to set up the new facility.

Ministers also faced pressure from both the local MP and Bedford Borough’s public health team, who raised concerns about the public health risk and wider concerns about the safety of the site, saying a Covid outbreak was “inevitable”.

Under the original plans, the first men were due on the site on Christmas Eve. Work at the site was said to have already been well under way, with the prefabs and the dining tent in place.

However, in an email to stakeholders on Tuesday, seen by The Independent, director of UK Visas and Immigration Deborah Chittenden said the Home Office would no longer be going through with the plans.

“As you are aware, we worked at pace to stand up the site as part of our winter contingency planning to ensure we had sufficient capacity across the system to meet expected demand. It is now clear that we do not need to use the additional capacity at this location at this time,” states the email.

“We continue to use our other additional temporary accommodation to ensure we continue to meet our statutory obligations whilst we work to get the asylum system back in balance.”

It comes as the Home Office is facing mounting criticism over the living conditions in two former military sites – Napier barracks in Kent and Penally training camp in Pembrokeshire – which were repurposed as asylum accommodation in September.

NGOs and lawyers have warned of poor access to legal advice and healthcare on both sites. A Covid outbreak at Napier barracks last month led to a ban on residents leaving the camp, with more than 120 people having since tested positive.

Lottie Hume, lawyer at Duncan Lewis, the law firm that was planning to issue legal proceedings against the Yarl’s Wood plans, said ministers had “rushed through” the plans “without due care or attention to legal obligations and the discriminatory impacts”.

She added: “It is yet another example of the home secretary’s approach of providing substandard accommodation to asylum-seekers to appease and enflame anti-immigrant opinion.”

Mohammad Yasin, Labour MP for Bedford and Kempston, said: “It was a terrible idea to house a vulnerable group of people in hostile, inappropriate and unsafe accommodation in the middle of a pandemic.”

He said the Kent and Pembrokeshire sites must be the “next to close”, adding: “The Home Office now has a lot of questions to answer about the whole plan and why for months they ignored the legitimate concerns of local MPs and councillors on a number of issues, not least the public health concerns over Covid outbreaks and the impact on local services.”

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “It was morally bankrupt to even consider herding people fleeing war and torture into portable cabins in the shadow of Yarl’s Wood.

“Home Office ministers must now close down the horrendous disused army barracks in Penally and Napier that are housing hundreds of people in squalid conditions.”

Minister for immigration compliance and the courts Chris Philp said: "The government has a statutory duty to accommodate asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute.

"Work is underway to reduce the cost of the asylum system, which is under significant pressure, and we are considering a number of accommodation options while we fix the broken asylum system to make it firmer and fairer."

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