A scandal hit immigration removal centre in Gatwick run by G4S was described as a ‘desperate place’ during a Home Affairs Committee meeting.
Ten members of staff have been suspended and three have been dismissed following a BBC Panorama investigation into conduct at Brook House.
Members of the committee raised allegations of abuse and assaults against detainees and staff dealing drugs on Thursday (September 14).
G4S bosses described being ‘ashamed’ by the allegations and had instigated an ‘immediate action plan to make sure this can’t happen again’.
A former duty director at Brook House, who left G4S in 2014, claimed that while the vast majority of staff were ‘good honest people’, there was a group who had ‘infected the general atmosphere and culture of the place’.
Reverend Nathan Ward suggested immigration had become a politicised subject and they had ‘lost sight of the human beings in the system’.
He also described having ‘no faith’ in the whistleblowing system as he previously raised concerns with G4S with senior managers, ministers, and even the police.
Mr Ward suggested the group of Home Office staff working in Brook House ‘is not one that has sufficient curiosity’, and felt the relationship between the Government department and G4S was ‘too cosy’.
Meanwhile James Wilson, a director of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, said: “Our impression of front-line staff is that the majority are trying to do their best, but there is a sense that Brook House feels to me a desperate place in many ways.”
He ascribed part of this to the Government policy of indefinite detention, and the ‘increasingly cramped conditions’, with some cells allowed to have three beds.
Both raised the desperation and uncertainty of detainees, who have at best sporadic access to legal advice.
Peter Neden, regional president for G4S in the UK and Ireland, said: “I was ashamed by what I saw and I’m sorry for what we saw. I can assure you if we were in any way aware of any of that behaviour we would have taken action.”
Jerry Petherick, managing director for G4S Custodial & Detention Services in the UK, added: “We were ashamed and disappointed. It does not represent the behaviour of the vast majority of our staff at Brook House or elsewhere who do a good job in very trying conditions.”
One MP told the G4S bosses she was ‘surprised there has not been a death on your watch’.
Detainees at Brook House, which number between 450 and 470, were described as including asylum seekers, people who have overstayed their visas, and foreign national offenders, who have served their prison sentence and are awaiting deportation.
G4S operates the immigration removal centre for adult males on behalf of the Home Office, who are responsible for managing the asylum cases and deciding who should be detained.
One case was highlighted where a detainee wanted to voluntarily leave the country but had to wait five to six months for this to be arranged, and two cases where detainees did not want to leave Brook House as they had nowhere in the UK to go so police were called to have them removed from the premises.
Mr Ward said: “That’s how broken the system is.”
He also claimed that inaccurate information on costs had been supplied by G4S to the Home Office, and suggested the company was being allowed to ‘mark its own homework’ by holding its own investigations into the allegations at Brook House.
Mr Petherick described the footage shown on Panorama as ‘appalling’, where staff had used ‘inappropriate restraint techniques’, something all employees were trained on through a fully recognised and certified programme.
Mr Neden described how there were Home Office staff on site every day and the prisons’ inspector had reviewed the centre in late 2016 and given it a ‘Good’ rating.
Asked if the relationship with the Home Office was too cosy, Mr Neden said: “I can assure you it does not feel like that.”
The company would not pick the firm commissioned to carry out the investigation, and the terms of reference would be signed off by the Home Office.
He felt the whistleblowing system ‘did work’ as they had received 11 complaints from Brook House in the last two years, but these all related to staff grievances against other staff, and did not relate to the treatment of detainees.
He did not recognise any of the claims about inaccurate costs, as the Cabinet Office had recently carried out an audit and ‘found the charging to be correct’.
Meanwhile Mr Petherick explained that drug use, especially ‘spice’ was a problem in all custodial settings, while they were looking at rolling out body worn cameras for staff to improve safeguarding and security.
He added: “The purpose is not to hold people for prison sentences, it’s to facilitate the closure of their cases.”
Summing up the session, Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said: “I’m afraid the answers that you have given do not suggest you have any grip on this at all.
“The answers that you have given to these very serious allegations, this very serious abuse and mismanagement taking place, could be the answers you might have given several years ago to the footage coming out of Medway.”
Responding to Mr Ward’s claims, a spokesman for the Home Office said: “These claims are inaccurate. When open, Cedars pre-departure accommodation was covered by a fixed price contract. Under this contract G4S would have been required to seek approval from the Home Office for any additional spending - whatever the value.
“G4S is required to meet set service standards - including ensuring minimum staffing levels are met - and must provide financial reports to Home Office and Cabinet Office on a quarterly basis.”