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Thu 29 July 2021

Mitie is the largest single provider of immigration detention services, has a Conservative peer on its board, and a history of poor service and provision for vulnerable migrants

A firm with numerous ties to the Conservative Party has been awarded a £166 million contract to run a controversial new detention centre.

Mitie was awarded the contract at the end of last month to run the Derwentside Detention Centre in County Durham, formerly known as Hassockfield STC. It will be designed to house up to 88 women who have broken immigration laws or whose asylum application has failed.  

It is the latest addition to the firm’s Home Office portfolio as Mitie is the largest single provider of immigration detention services, with its “care and custody” division reaping in £62 million in 2017-18. 

However, the company has been accused of exploiting its workers by not paying for hours worked. Its immigration facilities have been found to be “dirty” and “desolate”. And campaigners have argued that it “does not care about the wellbeing of migrants and only care about the profit they can extract”.

The Government announced that the new facility will open after 400 women were released from the notorious Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedford, run by Serco, during the Coronavirus crisis. Yarls Wood now holds people arriving from the English Channel. Serco’s director Rupert Soames is the brother of former Conservative MP Nicholas Soames and the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. 

Although Derwentside will be smaller than Yarls Wood, campaigners for migrant women’s rights have called the decision to open a new detention centre a “betrayal”, after the Government appeared to U-turn on plans to reform the system and reduce the number of women held in this way.

A campaigner with the Abolish Detention Hassockfield campaign told Byline Times: “Detention centres are sites of historic abuse. The trauma endured within these buildings is cruel, inhumane, and unnecessary, often times further harming those who have fled violence and oppression in their countries of origin. This trauma is institutional and systemic, where detained individuals suffer abuse on account of identities such as their race or gender. Racially minoritised women are especially at risk, and the Hassockfield/Derwentside detention centre will only further traumatise them.”


‘Dirty’ and ‘Desolate’

The contract to run the Derwentside centre includes “provision of operational, management and maintenance services”. This adds to Mitie’s immigration removal centres portfolio, as well as its existing work managing the removal of migrant people – it runs two Heathrow detention centres and has a 10-year, £525 million contract for “escorting immigration detainees” on removal flights. 

In 2016, the company was under fire for the conditions at its Harmondsworth site in Heathrow. The prisons inspector had “substantial concerns” about dirty, overcrowded and poorly ventilated residential units which had a “desolate air”. The inspector also found unsanitary toilets and showers, bed bugs and cockroaches. In response, Mitie committed to refurbishing the accommodation and introducing better cleaning standards to the centre’s healthcare facilities.

A year earlier, Mitie had locked up a child in its Campfield immigration removal centre for 62 days “by mistake”. An inspection found asylum seekers living in overcrowded and dirty accommodation, insufficient legal advice for detainees, and torture survivors held in violation of Home Office rules. 

However, the inspector also said that “staff and managers at Campsfield House should be congratulated in dealing professionally and sensitively with detainees who were going through what, for many, was a difficult and unhappy time”.


Conservative Party Ties

Mitie is no stranger to Government contracts – its public sector work is believed to be worth about £700 million, according to a recent annual report. It ranges from running part of the COVID-19 ‘Test and Trace’ programme to providing pest control facilities in hospitals. Earlier this year, Byline Times reported that Mitie had won a £699,000 contract to work on renovations at Downing Street.

The company has numerous links to the Conservative Party. Its non-executive director Phillippa Roe, known as Baroness Couttie, is a Conservative peer, having been nominated to the House of Lords by David Cameron. She was previously the leader of Westminster Council.

Its chief government and strategy officer, Simon Venn, used to be described on the Mitie website as a “senior advisor to the UK Government… appointed in 2010 by the then Foreign Secretary, Sir William Hague MP, to sit on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Overseas Business Risk (OBR) board”.

Meanwhile, former CEO and Conservative peer Baroness McGregor-Smith is now a non-executive director at the Department for Education. 

There is nothing to suggest that Mitie has benefited from its Conservative Party connections or behaved improperly. Like many large corporations contracted to deliver public sector work – Serco included – it simply has links to the Conservatives via its board and senior executives.  


A Controversial Policy

The detention of women whose asylum claim has failed, and other women migrants awaiting deportation, has long been controversial. 

In 2014, the charity Women for Refugee Women established the ‘Set Her Free‘ campaign to end the detention of women in places such as Yarls Wood and Hassockfield. It argues that women seeking asylum are often deeply traumatised by their experiences in their home country and being held indefinitely in detention can have a severe impact on their mental health. 

Research published by the charity in 2014 found that all of the women surveyed said that detention made them unhappy, with 93% feeling depressed and 85% feeling scared. More than half thought about killing themselves. Ten women surveyed had tried to kill themselves. 

A later report, published in 2017, had similar findings: all of the women spoken to said that they were depressed in detention and 88% said that their mental health had deteriorated while they were detained. 

Back in 2015, when Yarls Wood was run by Serco, Channel 4 News produced an undercover film which revealed the prison-like conditions and the racist and sexist abuse meted out towards women housed in the centre. 

The indefinite nature of detention adds pressure to women’s mental health as they don’t know when they will be released – or where they will end up – and campaigners argue that the impact of this on women’s wellbeing means that they should not be held in immigration removal centres in any numbers. 

A campaigner with the Abolish Detention Hassockfield campaign added: “The UK is responsible for many of the foreign policies that create the very conflicts women need refuge from. Yet instead of providing them support and safety, the government wants to lock them up. We believe that the detention system is fundamentally violent and driven by corporate interests seeking to profit from this violence. The fact that we detain people indefinitely is especially inhumane. We oppose all forms of detention, indefinite and otherwise, and look to a future founded on community-based restorative care and empathy.”

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