‘Shocking’ treatment at scandal-hit immigration centre, inquiry told

Inquiry was launched after BBC revealed treatment of migrants at Gatwick detention centres

A public inquiry into abuse allegations at a detention centre has heard how a BBC expose revealed “shocking” treatment that has “no place in a decent and humane” immigration system.

The review into what happened at Brook House between April and August 2017 is looking at the culture and attitudes among staff at the time amid reports of inmates being mistreated.

In September that year, BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast secretly filmed footage showing what appeared to be assaults, humiliation and verbal abuse of inmates by officers at the site, which was then run by security company G4S.

Ten members of staff were dismissed or resigned after the broadcast.

No prosecutions were brought after a police investigation, but two former inmates successfully called for a full independent investigation.

G4S has since stopped running Brook House and Tinsley House, which are next to Gatwick Airport in West Sussex. Contracting giant Serco took over in May last year.

“The treatment revealed in the Panorama documentary was shocking and has no place in a decent and humane immigration detention system,” Brian Altman, QC, said in an opening statement for the first phase of hearings, which began on Tuesday.

“Evidence received by the inquiry has exposed a number of issues at Brook House during the relevant time."

Mr Altman summarised evidence from whistle-blower Callum Tulley, a former Brook House officer and now a BBC journalist who carried out secret filming for Panorama at the site.

The counsel said Tulley described a “culture of abuse” and believed there were “cultural and systemic failings that gave rise to this behaviour, which allowed it to go unchallenged and dissuaded members of staff from raising concerns about it”.

“Detainees suffered as a consequence. Witnessing a suicidal man being choked by a member of staff was, says Tulley, extremely upsetting.

"It was, he said, an abuse of power which endangered the life of a detained man."

Some people detained at Brook House also raised concerns of a “culture of disbelief” in health care, Mr Altman said.

Doctors and nurses were “dismissive” and “exhibiting a lack of care or empathy and a potential to believe that a patient was exaggerating their symptoms, conditions or past history for the purposes of furthering their immigration case", he said.

The inquiry will examine evidence on restraint techniques, look at how staff responded to bullying and scrutinise the G4S contract for the site, and how the Home Office oversaw the operation.

The private security company was paid fixed monthly fees of about £1 million ($1.3m) during the time in question, which were subject to “performance-related deductions”, the inquiry heard.

Between April and August 2017, the company incurred 19,245 penalty points under the terms of the contract, leading to a financial deduction of £32,153.84, Mr Altman said.

But during this time neither verbal abuse of a detained person nor inappropriate use of force constituted performance failures.

Officials identified 84 incidents after reviewing the undercover footage and G4S was charged £2,768 by the Home Office over eight of these.

The company recorded about 40 complaints during the time, some of which were about unfair treatment, homophobic comments and alleged assault.

The inquiry also heard there was a “spice outbreak” and “prolific” use of it on the site at the time, and “a significant number of incidents” involving drugs.

“Short staffing appears to have been an almost daily occurrence,” Mr Altman said.

He said the custody officers on the wings were “stretched and they were overworked, resulting in them being unapproachable and exhausted".

“You may wish to consider whether this may sometimes have led to some staff taking their frustrations out on the detained men,” he told the inquiry chairwoman, Kate Eves.

The inquiry resumes on Wednesday, with the first phase of hearings taking place until early December.

A second will open in early 2022 and is expected to conclude by the spring, after which the inquiry’s findings will be published.

Updated: November 23rd 2021, 10:48 PM