Earlier this month, the Home Office announced that security giant G4S is to take over from Barnardo’s in providing welfare for families detained while waiting to be deported. The news required a double-take.After all, G4S is the same private security firm that promised it would sell its children’s services following a series of scandals about the way it looked after children.
The move follows the closure of the much-lauded Cedars detention centre in December. The purpose-built unit for families with children run by Barnardo’s was opened in 2011 by the coalition government, after the Liberal Democrats argued that children should not be held in penal establishments. Families awaiting removal will now be held at Tinsley House, an adult immigration removal centre (IRC) near Gatwick, operated by G4S.
When the Home Office first proposed closing Cedars and moving refused asylum seeker families to Tinsley House last year, Barnardo’s told ministers it was not in the best interests of children and they could not support it. It was controversial when Barnardo’s agreed to run Cedars in the first place. The charity, which had campaigned against holding child asylum seekers in detention, said it was only doing so because it believed its presence would help hold the Home Office to its commitment to run a more humane removal system.
The announcement that G4s will take over the running of such services from Barnardo’s has drawn strong criticism. Former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the government’s disregard for the welfare of vulnerable children is not the Great Britain he knew and admired, and he claimed that innocent children were being put at risk.
Tinsley House has history. Back in 2003, when it served as an IRC for families, it was slammed by the then prisons inspector Anne Owers who said it needed to improve conditions for the diverse and vulnerable group of people in its care. The inspectorate’s report concluded the centre was “not suitable to detain children for more than a few days”.
Tinsley House is designed to hold adults in secure conditions. Take away the name and you could be in any medium secure prison in the land. It bristles with bolts and bars and uniformed guards, and is as far removed from a child-friendly environment as you could imagine. It is shameful that children, whose parents committed the crime of seeking a better life, will be held there. That their safety and welfare will be in the hands of G4S compounds the disgrace.
It was a year ago when G4S announced that it was selling the children’s services arm of its UK operations. The announcement came on the day the Guardian reported that complaints of abuse by whistleblowers had been ignored by the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board as far back as 2003. This followed a BBC Panorama programme in January 2016 that secretly filmed members of staff allegedly abusing young inmates.
The Guardian report included an interview with two young women, Roni Moss and Lela Xhemajli, who had been in Medway as children in 2009-10. Both said they had been physically abused by staff on numerous occasions. Moss recounted suffering a miscarriage alone in her cell, aged 15 and staff handing her two sanitary towels and telling her to go back to sleep. She alleged that it took staff a week and a half to take her to hospital, where doctors confirmed the miscarriage. Both women said they never saw Ben Saunders, who was Medway’s director at the time, during the months they spent there. According to Moss: “He never came on the units.” Neither G4S, nor Saunders, challenged our report.
Roni Moss and Lela Xhemajli. ‘Both said they had been physically abused by staff on numerous occasions. Photo: the Guardian
After the Panorama and Guardian investigations, G4S replaced the then Medway director Ralph Marchant and brought back Saunders, who had moved on to an IRC. He remained at Medway until the Ministry of Justice took over the running of the centre in June. And it was in June that the Medway improvement board, set up by then justice minister Michael Gove, made its findings publicly available after weeks spent inspecting the centre. Its report contained disturbing accounts of attempts by G4S to impede its investigation by withholding CCTV footage, discouraging young inmates to speak to the board and trying to manipulate and control the investigation itself.
G4S has still not sold its children’s services arm, though it says it is in the process of doing so. It has no intention, it seems, of quitting its many other highly lucrative, UK custodial services. These include Tinsley House. The director of this establishment and another nearby IRC is the same Ben Saunders, who twice ran the troubled Medway secure training centre.
The Home Office would doubtless say that if children are to be held in IRCs, there is no alternative but to use the private sector, which runs all bar one of these units. But it is the state making the decision to imprison families awaiting deportation, so it should be the state taking the responsibility of caring for them. The government is abdicating that responsibility and placing it in the hands of a private company that has repeatedly shown itself incapable of delivering the services it promises.
As for the now closed Cedars, it was built with a better world in mind – relatively spacious, with play areas for children, several lounges, a library including immigration law materials, a multifaith prayer room and mosque, computing and internet facilities. Cedars was an acronym for compassion, empathy, dignity, approachability, respect and support. Not words one readily associates with G4S.