HC Deb 25 February 2002 vol 380 cc441-52 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the fire at Yarl's Wood removal centre.

Before setting out what happened on the night of Thursday 14 February, I want to make my position absolutely clear. I am not prepared to let Government policy be determined by those intent on creating disorder and destruction. Having removed asylum seekers from prison, we now find that our reward is the burning down of a substantial part of the facility. This is deplorable.

The new nationality, immigration and asylum policy, which I set out on 7 February, remains unchanged. In particular, I intend to press ahead with expanding the number of places in secure removal centres to 4,000. There will be no uncertainty and no misunderstanding. We will implement our comprehensive policy as set out to the House on 7 February.

I shall set out the facts as we know them. The unrest, involving a number of detainees, started on the evening of 14 February. At that stage the sequence of events is not entirely clear. However, it has been established that during the disturbance control of the centre was wrested from the staff, allowing detainees to gain keys providing access to restricted areas, including a property store. At the same time, damage was being caused inside the centre, including to the operation of CCTV. The detention contractors, Group 4, faced with substantial disorder, called for assistance from public services.

A number of detainees moved outside the accommodation blocks and a smaller number of these breached the perimeter security round the site. The earliest police units to arrive worked to restore perimeter security, and a number of detainees were apprehended at this stage. Further detainees were taken into custody later in the night in the Bedford area. Our latest estimate is that 22 remain at large.

An initial fire in the reception area was extinguished, but fires were started in separate blocks and in more than one location. The fire service was unable to tackle these blazes because detainees prevented it from gaining access to the buildings. By the time order had been restored on the compound, the fire had taken significant hold in one part of the centre and it proved impossible to save those buildings. I am pleased to tell the House that despite speculation to the contrary, we do not believe that there were any fatalities. However, I have authorised continuing investigation to be undertaken until we are absolutely certain that that is correct. I should tell the House that we still have dogs inside the site this afternoon.

In the appalling circumstances of that evening, the men and women of the Bedfordshire police and fire service acquitted themselves with dedication and courage. So too did members of the Prison Service and the Yarl's Wood operators. I know that the whole House will want to express its gratitude to them.

Since the events of 14 February, I have taken a number of immediate steps to strengthen security and protection in the service. First, I have sought advice from the chief inspector of fire services on safety at Yarl's Wood and other removal centres. Subject to immediate remedial action, the undamaged sections at Yarl's Wood have been declared safe. I therefore intend to continue their use. Similar advice has been given in respect of Harmondsworth, and other removal centres are also being assessed. Secondly, as a further precaution, detainees with a history of violent or criminal behaviour and those considered a danger to safety have been transferred to prison. Detailed contingency plans have been put in place should further disorder arise, and I have given direct instructions to improve both staffing and security.

Bedfordshire police and fire rescue services have begun investigations into the events of that night—they will take some weeks to complete—and Group 4 has instituted an internal investigation. I have also initiated a Home Office overarching investigation to inquire into the causes of the events and draw together the other reports, which will include recommendations on design and future fire and security measures. The investigation will, of course, be conducted in a manner that does not impede any criminal investigation. It will be headed by Stephen Moore, a senior and experienced Prison Service official. I would encourage hon. Members to make any observations directly to that inquiry.

I know that the House would want me to deal with the issue of the absence of sprinklers at Yarl's Wood. The decision not to fit sprinklers was informed by advice from a number of different expert sources. Sprinklers have not been used in other similar establishments, owing to operational and practical issues associated with managing sprinkler systems in such an environment. Nevertheless, a review into their use was already ongoing.

The review and recent events have led me to believe that increased precautionary measures are necessary. I have therefore taken a preliminary decision to install sprinklers in all new removal centres and will take the necessary steps to install them at Yarl's Wood, as well as Harmondsworth and other facilities.

It is now clear that a small number of people will take any step to prevent their removal from this country. We therefore have no option but to toughen the regime and instruct the immigration and nationality directorate further to speed up removal of those in the centres to their country of origin.

It would be unthinkable to allow violent and disruptive behaviour to put the safety of staff, other detainees or the public at risk. I shall also consider the criteria for allocating particular individuals to specific removal centres. That will entail considering different levels of security appropriate to the individuals who are held.

Although I take my obligations under the 1951 convention seriously, many claimants fail to meet the standards required. Those with no right to remain must be removed if our overall policy is to stand any chance of success. I therefore reiterate my determination to provide a coherent and seamless process in which rapid removal, and thereby prevention of absconding, must play an essential part.

The lessons of 14 February will be learned, but the message must also be clear. No one will be permitted to engage in behaviour that puts lives at risk and destroys first-class facilities, built at public expense and created as an alternative to prison. That is the message that I intend to convey this afternoon. I know that the House will back that stance.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for early notification of his statement. The event that we are considering is exceptionally serious, and the House's sympathy goes to those who were injured and to local residents who may be living in fear.

The event has an unhappy background. It occurred in a recess during which an appalling rise in street crime was announced and the Home Secretary's relationship with the police at all levels virtually collapsed.

I have repeatedly made it clear that I agree with the Home Secretary about the need for an asylum regime that is much more effective than the system that his predecessor, the current Foreign Secretary, bequeathed him. However, the disaster at Yarl's Wood raises fundamental questions about the effectiveness of the new strategy.

The new strategy contains three critical elements: reception centres, accommodation centres and removal centres. However, we must ask whether removal centres are being managed in a way that will make sense of the rest of the process. Questions fall into three straightforward categories: why, who and when?

Why were there no sprinklers? In the light of Lord Rooker's comment that their absence was extraordinary, and warnings by Labour Members 15 months ago, which experts, to whom the Home Secretary referred, disagreed with the Bedfordshire fire service? Why was there so little co-ordination with the police? Is it true that they had no immediate access when they arrived? Given the new tightening of security, which we welcome, why did the Home Secretary not authorise further tightening? Why did a break-out occur at Harmondsworth? Why was no heed paid to anxieties that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and unions raised about pressures and tensions in Yarl's Wood? Why was there no adequate response to rioting in Yarl's Wood?

Let us consider the "who" questions. Who was in Yarl's Wood? Were repeated reassurances to the local populace that everyone there was low risk correct? How many had exhausted the appeals process and were due to be removed? How many were still engaged in the appeals process? Were legal advisers and other facilities available for the latter? How many of those who remain at large were due for removal and how many were engaged in the appeals process? What are the Home Secretary's intentions for those who are apprehended?

Let us examine the "when" questions. How long was it taking to remove those who were due for removal from Yarl's Wood? Were there any whom it took more than a few days to remove once the appeals process had been exhausted? Was the local population misled about the average length of time people would stay? What was about to be done to enable an institution that turns out to be incapable of dealing appropriately with 380 inhabitants to deal appropriately with its full capacity of 900? Is the Home Secretary's policy of building a small number of large centres still the right one? When will Yarl's Wood be operational again? Has the Home Secretary now revised his target of 30,000 removals a year? If not, how is he going to achieve it with Yarl's Wood non-operational or partly non-operational?

Perhaps the Home Secretary—who is amazingly good at this task—will answer some of those questions today in the House. I cannot see, however, how even he can possibly be expected to answer them all in full today. It seems clear that only a proper, comprehensive, public inquiry can be expected to provide the answers that can teach us the comprehensive lessons that we will need to learn if there is to be any realistic chance of putting back together the pieces of the Home Secretary's removal policy. Will he now assure the House that he will hold such an inquiry without delay?

Mr. Blunkett

First of all, I shall entirely ignore the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, which were not worthy of him. We all know that, when we are taking difficult decisions in difficult circumstances, people will be aggravated about them. That has nothing to do with the issue that we are dealing with this afternoon. It is also important, in addressing the hon. Gentleman's perfectly reasonable questions, that we should be aware that the Conservatives' previous policy was that all asylum seekers would be held in centres similar to Yarl's Wood. I am glad that they have now abandoned that policy, because it was never viable or practical. I have said—I am prepared to acknowledge it again this afternoon—that holding people outside prison in secure circumstances is a difficult task, but a necessary one if we are to have any semblance of a removals policy.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of questions about who was there. I have said that there needs to be a review of the way in which those who are put into centres are assessed in terms of their suitability for the particular centre. I implicitly acknowledge, therefore, that some people who are violent should remain in prison rather than in a removal centre. Some people who are still going through the fast-track appeals process should be placed separately from those about to be removed from country; and when we are about to remove people from the country—I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's question on this point—it should be done very speedily indeed, to minimise the organisational capacity of those who wish to create havoc and to minimise the difficulty for those with children.

The hon. Gentleman's "when" questions will form part of the review that will be undertaken, but I acknowledge with hindsight that if people had been able to act more speedily and access had been more readily available—even though the detainees were responsible for preventing access—the fire could have been minimised. That is self-evident. It is also self-evident, however, that to blame the police, the fire service or the operators for what was started by detainees would be to blame those trying to get a grip on the situation rather than those who caused it.

I also want to acknowledge—in relation to the "who" and the "when" and the "why" questions—that local people's interests need to be safeguarded, and that when statements are made to reassure them, they are honest, open and transparent. It is my intention to go to Yarl's Wood in the next month with the local Members of Parliament who have an interest in this issue, to talk to local people, to get feedback from them and to ensure that reassurances that are given are fulfilled.

I say again that, if we are to learn the lessons and do the job well, we need to ensure that the inquiries that have been started can be properly co-ordinated. The reason I am not establishing a long-term public inquiry is that many of the facts can be quickly and easily ascertained. The need for greater security can and will be acknowledged by me. The staffing improvements which had already been set in train not just at Yarl's Wood but at Harmondsworth by the operators, UK Detention Services, have now been put in place. Given that Yarl's Wood opened only in November and that we were piloting the way in which it operated, it is a tragedy of the first order that this incident should happen within three months of that opening.

With hindsight, I fully acknowledge that some of those issues might have been resolved, but I want to make one other point clear. Those who try to remove their own responsibility, including insurers and underwriters, do no one a service by passing the buck—in this case to the public purse—for the liability. They were happy enough to carry it when making a profit, but are not happy to do so when making a loss.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The fire at Yarl's Wood endangered the lives of hundreds of people, including hundreds of innocent detainees. The Home Secretary refers to hindsight, but the question of sprinklers is not one of hindsight. The relevant fire authorities advised at the time that sprinklers should be installed at such a facility. He says that it will be relatively easy to ascertain the facts of that issue. Can he tell the House whose advice the authorities took over and above that of the fire service in not installing sprinklers?

Mr. Blunkett

The Minister responsible took advice not only internally, but from a number of fire services, given the different locations of the centres. There was conflicting advice from different fire services about the likelihood of such an outbreak. Again with hindsight, and given the particular fabrics of Yarl's Wood—this is true of Harmondsworth, but not of other centres, which are built on a different model and do not rely on wood—I believe that my predecessors would have installed sprinklers. That is what I am intent on doing, but no individual placed in such circumstances—outside prison in centres built to provide not prison conditions, but comfortable living conditions—is in any way exonerated from choosing to burn it down.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I join the Home Secretary in condemning the criminal activity that occurred in the centre and thanking and paying tribute to the public servants, particularly the fire and police services, who came to do their work immediately, without thought for their own safety.

On the events of 14 February specifically, has the Home Secretary decided the terms of reference of the inquiry that he has announced? If so, will he publish them? May I urge on him what I accept is a halfway house between his proposals and those of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—an inquiry chaired or led by somebody independent of the Prison Service that does not necessarily take as much time as a full-scale public inquiry, for reasons that I entirely understand, would take?

In that context, I follow the question of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott): will the Home Secretary publish as soon as possible all the advice and correspondence on sprinklers? That clearly ought to be in the public domain. Will he ensure that the terms of reference include the reasons for and the allegations about the delayed entry of the fire and police services, and the allegations about handcuffing and detention before any fire broke out in the centre? In relation to individuals, the Home Secretary has rightly said that he cannot yet give the House a final indication of whether there have been any fatalities. What is he being told as to when the police and fire services expect to be able to reach a final decision on whether anybody has lost their life?

Were the only records of who was in Yarl's Wood kept in Yarl's Wood? If so, will the Home Secretary give the House an undertaking that, although institutions may hold their own records, from today onwards there will be a centrally held record for every single reception, detention and removal centre and prison, so that people know from day to day who is in those places? If nobody outside knew who was there, that is scandalous.

The Home Secretary said that he wanted to review allocation between centres, and I agree that that seems to be necessary. Can it be made clear that those who are returned to prison will be only those with either a criminal conviction or something else that justifies their imprisonment? Will the Home Secretary also tell us how many people he has decided should go back to prison?

Does the Home Secretary accept that there is a clear psychological difference between those who are in the process of putting their case, and are therefore far less likely to prove troublesome and try to find ways of escaping, and those who have already had their last opportunity to appeal? If any categories are to be separated, it should be those. In that context, will the Home Secretary review his decision—it is the only decision that I ask him to go back on—to remove the right to an automatic bail application? People who know that their cases will be reviewed regularly are much less likely to cause trouble in the system.

I stand to be corrected, but I gather that Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons now has authority to inspect detention and removal centres. Will the Home Secretary ask the inspector, as a matter of priority, to authorise an inspection of the whole detention and removal estate, and also to give advice on the way in which such inspections will be planned and carried out in future?

Mr. Blunkett

The inspector is independent, and will undoubtedly undertake that task with the vigour that she has demonstrated since taking over last year.

It is not true that the only records that existed were in Yarl's Wood. It is true, however, that the records are held on paper and not computerised. That is why it took a few days to ascertain their coherence in terms of what was known at Yarl's Wood itself. Investment is needed to update the information held and exchanged in the immigration and nationality directorate.

I am prepared to publish the criteria for the reviews. I am prepared to consider allowing an independent member to work with Stephen Moore, who does not have responsibility for or run the immigration and nationality directorate estate but is from the Prison Service. I am not prepared to publish private advice and material given to my predecessors, any more than any other Minister has been or would be; but I am prepared to ensure that Members are updated regularly on what we are doing and on how quickly we can secure the necessary protection.

Only those who warrant being in prison will be transferred to prison accommodation. So far, 25 of those who sought to abscond have been removed to prison. I have already acknowledged that those who are still at the appeal stage should be considered differently from those who have been demonstrably willing to abscond, and who therefore find themselves in secure removal centres.

That, I think, answers a great many of the hon. Gentleman's questions, but I will write to him, and to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), about the questions with which I have not dealt.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for making a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity. Let me associate North-East Bedfordshire with his thanks to all who put their lives at risk in dealing with the criminal, deplorable and potentially lethal incident the other week, including my constituents who work at Yarl's Wood.

In view of what the Home Secretary said about insurance, is he not startled by the fact that the firm of loss adjusters Capita McLaren, acting for the insurance syndicate D.J. Pye, has been able to express its thanks to Bedfordshire police by announcing its intention to proceed against them to the tune of £43 million? Surely those who have had a facility like Yarl's Wood imposed on them with no opportunity to object should not run the further risk of having most of their police budget stripped away the following year? Will the Home Secretary go further than he did a moment ago, and condemn that sharp practice as deeply offensive? Will he ensure that it will not succeed in bankrupting Bedfordshire police or council tax payers?

Will the Home Secretary reconsider the timing of his visit to North-East Bedfordshire? Could he visit as soon as possible, in order to meet constituents who, through the Yarl's Wood liaison committee, worked hard and openly with the Home Office and Group 4 to ensure the success of Yarl's Wood? They had to endure the disruption caused by the building of the facility in a rural area, and they now feel rather slapped in the face by a situation which, it turns out, they predicted rather more accurately and confidently than those whose salaries they pay so that they can advise the nation.

Mr. Blunkett

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he dealt with and handled the situation before the events of 14 February and the way in which he has done so since. I will try to come to the area as quickly as possible. I take entirely his last point about drawing on the wisdom, knowledge and intelligence of those at local level and heeding it more closely.

I thought that I had gone quite a long way in relation to the insurers and their underwriters. All I can say is that I share entirely the hon. Gentleman's views about protecting the police and those whom they serve from the impact. Like him, I was astonished.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the measured and positive attitude that he is adopting today and for his robust support for the excellent work of Bedfordshire police and fire services, which acted superbly under extremely difficult circumstances. It is important that we all adopt a measured and positive approach, because there is much anger, disbelief and concern across the country, including in the Bedford area, and because some people may have lost their lives—although I am delighted to hear that that is unlikely.

That brings me to the question of sprinklers, which is a serious concern. My right hon. Friend will be aware that I wrote to the Home Office a year ago asking that sprinklers be installed at Yarl's Wood. He will know that the reply acknowledged the importance of the issue but said that it would be decided only following the outcome of the review of fire safety protocols across the detention and prison estate.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to think again with regard to releasing the review documents? I would like the opportunity to see the experts' reasoned justification that led to the conclusion that sprinklers should not be installed. It is important that these matters be out in the open so that we can learn. That does not detract from his welcome and commonsense announcement regarding the installation of sprinklers as soon as possible at Yarl's Wood.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement that he will come to Bedfordshire to meet local people who have legitimate concerns about Yarl's Wood and indeed about the implementation of the Government's detention policy. I have also called for a public inquiry at the appropriate time so that all these matters can be examined in depth and public confidence can be restored.

Mr. Blunkett

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions and the way in which he has dealt with the situation since 14 February. I make it clear that restoring public confidence, particularly in the locality, is a priority— hence the wish to come to talk to local people and to ensure that we provide not just verbal reassurance, but visible reassurance of the changes and improvements that have been made and the lessons that have been learned.

I believe that the review that was initiated in spring last year—of fire safety and the role of sprinklers—should inform the overarching inquiry, and that we should publish the inquiry so that people can see the determination and the facts as they have been laid out. I would like to see how we can draw those various elements together before determining the form in which that should be done.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the preface to his statement has got to be right and commands support on both sides of the House? He referred to being in touch with the immigration and nationality directorate to speed up the process.

He will know that most people think that those processes take far too long and that lawyers do well out of them, but virtually nobody else does. What specific steps does he intend to take to speed the process up, bearing in mind the fact that the longer people are in the process and are detained, the more likely it is that there will be more disorder, regrettable though that would be?

Mr. Blunkett

Despite the fact that the process here is speedier than that in most other parts of Europe, I agree that most people expect it to be faster than it is at the moment. The comprehensive programme laid out in the White Paper three weeks ago is intended to make a contribution in that respect. The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the speed of operation within the removal centres, and again, that comes down to the avoidance not only of prevarication with administration and bureaucracy but of legal prevarication, which is why I doubt whether not the entitlement to claim bail, but the automatic right of lawyers to intervene at every stage, even when removal has been determined and appeals have been turned down, is right. We are bedevilled by a process that, although it is transparent, fair and open, allows someone to make money at every stage out of preventing this country from removing from its borders those who are not entitled to be here.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

First, I add my support to that of my fellow Bedfordshire Members for the police and fire services of Bedfordshire—I hold them in the highest regard—but my question is about sprinklers. It is an irony, or possibly a coincidence, that about three years ago the senior fire officers of Bedfordshire, who were seriously concerned, asked me to lobby the Government to press for sprinklers to be installed in public, commercial and industrial buildings throughout the country. I was one of the Members who lobbied Ministers at that time, and had action been taken then we might have saved millions of pounds at Yarl's Wood, and in other circumstances lives might have been saved. That is as may be, and perhaps we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. None the less, there are lessons for the future. Many other buildings in the private and public sectors throughout Britain need sprinklers, and I hope that the Government will give urgent consideration to what needs to be done. In my meeting with the fire officers three years ago, they made a specific point about the density of sprinklers. In some buildings, although sprinklers are fitted, there are too few of them to do the job properly. The fire officers emphasised strongly that for sprinklers to be effective, the density needs to be sufficient, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will take note of what they said.

Mr. Blunkett

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his foresight. However, an assessment is made for each particular facility not simply because of the cost of sprinklers but to determine their appropriateness. Obviously, where there is open accommodation and it is unlikely that people will deliberately commit arson, the need for a universal sprinkler system is reduced. I have acknowledged this afternoon that I believe that it was a mistake not to understand the nature of the secure removal centre facility, and the likelihood that people would behave as they did on 14 February, so the lesson has been well learned.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I echo the Home Secretary's congratulations to the public services involved in coping with the situation, and also his statement that the blame lies fairly and squarely with those who started the fire and behaved as they did. Nevertheless, the way in which he is operating his detention policy means that he is gathering together in one place several hundred people who are without hope, because they are at the end of the process. A high degree of volatility is built in; he is dealing with desperate people. I entirely understand and echo his wish that such centres should not be run as prisons, but given the nature of the population that they are holding, may I ask him to tell the House what the ratio of staff to prisoners is at those centres in comparison with category C prisons, and what degree of supervision was being exercised within the perimeters when the outbreak took place?

Mr. Blunkett

I thank the right hon. Lady for her opening remarks.

The size of Yarl's Wood is slightly misleading, in the sense that it is, and will be again, two 450-bed units. In other words, two centres are on one site, rather than 900 detainees being held in one substantial center—hence the ability to have saved part of it. In fact, as of this morning, 143 detainees are in the unaffected block.

I do not accept that we could have expected the behaviour of the detainees, even though their hope of remaining had been removed; but I accept that more could have been done—not least in relation to the latter point made by the right hon. Lady about the area between the perimeter fence and the buildings. That is something that I will take on board and will ask Stephen Moore to investigate particularly.

I shall write to the right hon. Lady about the ratio of staff and the comparison with category C prisons.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Most people in my constituency would accept the need to detain people whose applications for asylum have been refused and who are awaiting deportation, but there are persistent rumours that not everybody in Yarl's Wood was in that category. Will the Home Secretary confirm that all the people in Yarl's Wood had at least had their initial application for asylum refused?

Mr. Blunkett

I must be extremely careful not to give an answer that may prove misleading to the House.

I am aware that there were people in Yarl's Wood who had not completed their appeals process. As my hon. Friend will have heard, I dealt earlier with the issue of ensuring that we get that right in future, so that there is different security and accommodation for people who are being fast-tracked but have not completed the process. However, it is my belief that all those who were there had completed the first stage of their application process, but I shall write to my hon. Friend and place a copy in the Library if what I have said proves incorrect

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

May I also add my tribute to the men and women of the Bedfordshire police service and fire authority who handled the tragedy last week so expertly?

May I press the Home Secretary once more on the question of insurance? Has he taken any advice as to whether he or the House need to do anything to ensure that the insurers cannot be successful in recouping the £43 million from Bedfordshire police? Will he give the House an assurance that Bedfordshire county council and the other local authorities involved will not have to foot any of the bill for rebuilding Yarl's Wood?

Mr. Blunkett

For legal reasons I cannot give the assurances for which the hon. Gentleman asks. However, I can say that it is my intention—as I have made clear—that we should take whatever advice is necessary, and that we should work with the police, who are, of course, operationally independent, to protect their interests and those of the people they serve in the county. We must ensure that the police do not find themselves liable for that bill. At this stage, we must be very careful not to address the need to amend the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 in these circumstances, as no doubt the clever lawyers for the underwriters would use such indications as vindication of their stance.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is already a busy induction centre in my Dover constituency and that the Dover young offenders institute is being converted to a removal centre. Can he assure me that that facility will not open until he is completely confident as to the security of people both inside the centre and in the locality? Does he share my relief that the centre in Dover will be fully staffed by highly experienced prison officers rather than private security guards?

Mr. Blunkett

The answer to my hon. Friend's first question is, unequivocally, yes. On the second question, I expect operators, whether the Prison Service or independent operators such as Group 4 or UK Detention Services, to display the important levels of training and professionalism needed to undertake that difficult task.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

First, like other speakers this afternoon, I unreservedly condemn the violence and destruction at Yarl's Wood. I note that the Home Secretary referred in his statement to a small number of people who will take any step to prevent removal from the country. He went on to talk about toughening the regime. Will he tell us this afternoon what steps he has in mind for toughening the regime? I appeal to him not to be pushed down a route whereby the majority will suffer because of the action of an irresponsible few.

Mr. Blunkett

I look to the inquiries to indicate the particular changes that will be required. I have already said in response to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that we will need to consider external security in terms of what is available immediately outside the centre. All of us would agree that we need to clarify the nature of what happens at the centres in the evening and at night. The need to increase surveillance and staffing is now self-evident. Until we are satisfied that we have introduced the kind of security that will prevent incidents of that sort occurring again, there will inevitably be a greater degree of security and surveillance than would otherwise be necessary. While that is unfortunate for other residents and detainees, albeit for a shorter and shorter period before removal, they have made it inevitable.

Martin Linton (Battersea)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while detention places are needed for those awaiting deportation, those who still await a decision or an appeal need a system that affords them dignity and respect? What progress is he making on the reforms already announced for a changeover from vouchers to cash?

Mr. Blunkett

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to say something cheery. I desperately need that opportunity, as the shadow Home Secretary sought to point out at the beginning of his contribution. I still retain a sense of humour somewhere deep inside.

I have laid proposals before the House that, subject to parliamentary approval, under section 96(5) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 will accelerate the removal of vouchers. Consequently, instead of being removed in the autumn, the voucher system will be replaced by a cash system on 8 April this year. That will ensure a sensible, speedy and effective administrative changeover.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Combridgeshire)

In the course of his statement, the Home Secretary referred to the review of fire safety in the removal centres. Will he confirm that he will also examine fire safety arrangements in Oakington as a detention centre? Will he also report on that to the House in due course? When he is considering the changes that he must make, he will be aware that, as a reception centre, Oakington has had a low level of people absconding up to now. However, if the regime is to consist of fast removals for those who are refused on the initial decision, which is followed by a fast-track appeal while they are housed in a removal centre, the pressure on the security of a place such as Oakington may increase. Will he also undertake to consider the appropriate level of security there?

Mr. Blunkett

On the hon. Gentleman's primary concern, I am prepared to consider security at Oakington. However, it is worth pointing out that anyone who behaved in a fashion that gave rise to danger to others or insecurity at Oakington would, prima facie, damage severely their case for advancing further in the process on which they have embarked. It is in the best interests of those in Oakington to display their desire to remain in this country through behaviour that would allow us to want them in our country.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Will my right hon. Friend add to the comments that he has already made about the general opinion that property insurance policies are nullified by a riot? My concern is for Bradford, West Yorkshire police and West Yorkshire council tax payers in the wake of last year's riots in Bradford.

Mr. Blunkett

I know that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members are deeply concerned about the impact of such events on insurance and liability. I want to make it absolutely clear that no one declared a riot at Yarl's Wood; it is important that people understand that, and those who choose to use quite different circumstances in public places as a benchmark would be wise to think again. The issue that my hon. Friend raises is valid, and outside the context of what happened at Yarl's Wood we will need to examine it very rapidly.