The Home Office spent millions of pounds building a “prison-style” asylum seeker camp that was never used, The Independent can reveal.
Ministers have been accused of “reckless spending” after it emerged that more than £3m in taxpayers’ money was paid to a construction firm to install temporary buildings on the site of Yarl’s Wood removal centre, in north Bedfordshire, at the end of last year, with the intention of housing 187 asylum seekers there.
Home secretary Priti Patel initially pressed ahead with plans despite fierce criticism from MPs and campaigners, who warned that such accommodation would be “completely inappropriate” and that residents may struggle to access legal and health services in the remote location.
Two months after work began, the plans were dropped, with the Home Office saying it no longer needed the additional capacity.
The decision came a day before the department was due to be taken to court by lawyers who argued that it had failed to obtain planning permission or carry out the necessary impact assessments before constructing the asylum camp.
A freedom of information (FOI) response obtained by Liberty Investigates has now revealed that the Home Office paid £3.175m to Wernick Buildings Ltd, a construction company specialising in prefabricated buildings, to erect and rent out portable cabins on the site. The department hired the structures for 13 weeks, during which they stood empty.
Basic details of the contract – awarded through a government framework for buying and hiring prefabricated buildings – have not been published in line with cabinet office guidelines 10 months on. A Home Office spokesperson said they would be published “in due course”.
Shadow immigration minister Bambos Charalambous said: “This is a shocking example of Home Office incompetence and waste. The government’s asylum system lacks compassion as well as competence and their dithering has wasted millions of taxpayers’ money.”
Toufique Hossain, director at law firm Duncan Lewis, which had been preparing to challenge the use of the camp, said: “Wasting such vast sums of money, especially during a pandemic, in which so many in this country suffered and needed assistance, needs to be explained.”
Previously undisclosed plans, also obtained by Liberty Investigates through information laws, reveal that the site would have been made up of cramped huts, with one shower for every eight residents. In the UK, guidance for shared houses requires one per five occupants.
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive at Refugee Action, said: “Shoving traumatised people into a de-facto prison camp in the shadow of the notorious Yarl’s Wood should never have been considered.
He said the government needed to “stop wasting taxpayers’ money on malicious and often unlawful schemes that try to keep people afraid and out of sight rather than safe and integrated in our communities”.
The Home Office is currently pushing through its New Plan for Immigration, which includes proposals for “reception centres” to provide “basic accommodation” to asylum seekers while their claims are processed. It also plans to amend the law to pave the way for asylum seekers to be held offshore while their claims are being processed.
Campaigners are worried about the plans to house asylum seekers en masse, particularly in light of the situation at Napier Barracks, a military site in Folkestone that was repurposed as asylum accommodation last September, and has faced strong criticism for failing to meet the basic needs of its residents.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said the “reckless spending” on the Yarl’s Wood camp was the “consequence of this government’s addiction to hostile responses to refugee protection, driven by ideology rather than humanity”.
“Their plans to increase the detention and punishment of people seeking safety would see billions of pounds more of our money poured into vanity projects such as the offshore detention of men, women and children,” she added.
“Money would be saved and lives transformed for the better if the Home Office would allow a humane welcome and the timely resolution of people’s claims.”
It follows a series of revelations about Home Office spending that have prompted concern over the past year. Figures published in July showed that the department paid out £9.3m in compensation costs for unlawful detention in removal centres in 2020-21, and in December it emerged that it had spent £2.3m on deporting 225 people – £10,000 per deportee.
Rosie Newbigging, formerly a Labour parliamentary candidate in Welwyn Hatfield, who ran a campaign against the Yarl’s Wood plan, said that by “wasting” millions of pounds on the camp the government had demonstrated “complete moral and political bankruptcy”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “There has been an unacceptable increase in migrants dangerously crossing the Channel in unseaworthy vessels backed by despicable criminal gangs, which has put our broken asylum system under increased pressure.
“The government has a statutory duty to accommodate asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute and we make no apology for exploring every option to do this.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies