What do Labour bloggers have to say on Yarl’s Wood?

8:38 am - March 1st 2010

by Neil Robertson    

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Because I possess a lousy news antennae, my choice for top story isn’t the tightening in the opinion polls or David Cameron’s promise to ‘double up on change’.

Instead, I was startled by yet more troubling allegations about the conditions at Yarl’s Wood. To add to the reported mistreatment of children and the four week hunger strike, the Observer has now obtained testimonies from people inside the facility that guards have been beating women:

Jacqui McKenzie of Birnberg Peirce said: “I have spoken to a client of mine in Yarl’s Wood and she has seen the bruising herself from the incident on 8 February. There is an atmosphere of real tension there.”

The images of the bruising show the injuries allegedly sustained during the incident by Denise McNeil, a 35-year-old Jamaican, who claims she was hit by staff and, since the disturbance, has been moved to London’s Holloway prison.

Meme Jallow, 26, from Gambia, who has been inside Yarl’s Wood for seven months, said: “A girl called Denise was by the windows. One officer took her and hit her by the face.”

Another hunger striker, a 37-year-old from Nigeria who asked to remain anonymous for fear of her asylum case being unfairly reviewed, said: “The security went outside and used shields like they do when there is a war. That is what they used to smash one of the women who was outside.”

Nothing new will be gained by me just restating my belief that Yarl’s Wood should close immediately, with an apology offered to all who’ve been mistreated in these publicly-funded, privately-run quasi-prisons.

Instead, I wanted to guage the opinion of Labour members/voters/activists – the grassroots blog-writers and door-knockers who are the best face of an otherwise haggard-looking party.

When I learned the existence of these centres back in my more idealistic youth, it was a discovery which began my gradual estrangement from the Labour Party. I did not want to be a part of any political party which, when in government, incarcerated asylum seekers, particularly when the motivations for doing so seemed deeply craven.

Though I may have moderated in the intervening years, that remains my view. Furthermore, whilst I cannot generalise to the rest of my generation, when your formative political experiences are of a state acting punitively towards society’s most vulnerable, you may be less inclined to regard the state as a potential force for good.

I realise, of course, that there’ll be plenty within the Labour Party who’re equally opposed to Yarl’s Wood and its ilk, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that you can only change a party from the inside. What I’m curious about is whether there is any scope for change.

Is this the kind of issue which enrages local activists? Are there enough of them to demand a change of approach by the party leadership? Will we ever hear a Labour leader complaining about the treatment of asylum seekers rather than excusing it?

Can Labour get any more liberal on this issue, or I expect this squalid status quo to remain, and get over it?

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About the author
Neil Robertson is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He was born in Barnsley in 1984, and through a mixture of good luck and circumstance he ended up passing through Cambridge, Sheffield and Coventry before finally landing in London, where he works in education. His writing often focuses on social policy or international relations, because that's what all the Cool Kids write about. He mostly blogs at: The Bleeding Heart Show.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Immigration

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Reader comments

I must say I didn’t know a single thing about the ongoing hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood, so thanks Neil for highlighting the issue.

I had a look online and, for a place that’s been open 8 and 1/2 years the number of dodgy stuff going on is already disturbing to say the least.

I also found out that Yarl’s Wood is run by a private contractors called Serco Group plc. While apologising for my ignorance on the matter, I ask fellow LibCon readers/writers: is this normal?

Since when are prisons and detention centres run by private plc firms?

It’s entirely reprehensible, and I think if the situation at Yarl’s Wood was known to more people in the Labour base there’d definitely be some sort of outcry.

How far would people be willing to go to end it? Well, that’s entirely a different matter. Honestly, it’s hard to say whether this is something that would get the base riled up, particularly given the often infinite capacity for some sectors of Labour to excuse any mishap if exposing it could be seen as a threat to the party.

The big problem is that this is an issue that enrages and enlivens the intellectual base of the party, but not necessarily the greater party at large to the point at which they’ll force the leadership’s hand. Lord knows whether we’ll ever see a Labour leader decry this sort of bullshit; as a Labour member, I know I sure as hell hope we will and will do all possible to get men and women into power with the integrity to do so. How successful will such drives be? Fuck knows.

Serco has several fingers in several detention pies, including running four prisons and handling prison transfers and the like.

I worked for Serco a couple of years ago (not the prison division). Occasional e-mails and flyers were received asking for clothing donations for Yarls’ Wood, which rather implied that Serco couldn’t be bothered to clothe its detainees properly.

Serco doesn’t seem to be doing too badly at the moment although it must be stressed that the company’s interests are extremely diverse.


As a blogger and labour supporter (does this make me a labour blogger?) I find the idea of Yarl’s Wood uncomfortable, I find the idea that there are beatings inside Yarl’s Wood uncomfortable, but though I find the former uncomfortable, realistically this would be one of the better options for illegal immigrants (when you consider the other dreadful things that can happen to them, when they become unknown of, all rights disappear, homo sacer etc etc) if it weren’t for the latter. So I think the majority of Labour bloggers will agree that an inquiry needs to be made into the goings on in Yarl’s Wood, so as to ensure that the extension of good will is bestowed against these desparate people, and that all care must be taken to see that they are treated according to the law, and not have their human rights disturbed in the process.

When I was younger, and like you Neil a little more rebellious, I used to perceive centre’s like Yarl’s Wood as the enemy, and would’ve been happy to see the front of the building torn down and setting the prisoners free, but I didn’t have my eye on the consequences of this action – it didn’t mean freedom for illegal immigrants, it was the start of a patchy road without the rights and freedoms that we enjoy in everyday life. By no means do we excuse the actions of some obviously clinically castrated guards, but nor do we sit on our hands and forever expect this to be the norm of centres that, though may break our hearts to acknowledge the need of, do realistically have to exist, and I for one support a further look into this from a Labour perspective (i.e. sympathetic realism).

Neil: I am a Labour blogger (at Though Cowards Flinch and Bickerstaffe Record) and can probably be described as pretty ‘loyal’ though not entirely uncritical. I am also Trustee to a charity that seek to mitigate as best it can some of the damage caused by Yarls Wood (and other detention centres).

Yarlswood is a disgrace, and a huge blot on the reputation of the Labour party, and you do well to use this space to highlight that. It is not valid, tempted as the loyalist bit of me, to explain it away by saying that the situation might be worse – that more acts of unhumanity inclusive of child cruelty flying in the face of the UN Declaration on the Right of the Child – might be committed on these shores if the Conservatives were in power. Yarls Wood is specifically a creation of the Labour government, and has developed into a monster even though it was not intended to be such by policy makers in the early 2000s.

To paraphrase your central challenge to Labour party members: Why have Labour party members like me allowed our consciences to be sullied in this manner? And what can Labour party members now do about it?

The blunt answers are that Labour party members have become (and have been for quite a long time) disenfranchised on such matters. Members of the Conservative party have as well of course (and for longer) but such matters are not as important to them. By ‘members’ I also include a large number of MPs whose instincts on Yarls Wood will be much the same as the rank and file membership.

The reality is that Yarls Wood is not an issue ‘on the doorstep’ and is not going to be. Local Labour parties, which have become (even according to the rule book) primarily campaigning tools for the leadership are not by and large going to discuss the issue and in any event ‘resolutions’ about it will go nowhere of importance. Labour party members know that.

I have written a good deal, and I won’t bore you here, about how the structures might be changed from within so that a proper grassroots policy voice is heard and acted upon, and the leadership and its policy advisors bound to do things like close Yarls Wood, even in spite of what its rightwing media-attuned antennae are picking up about the possible ‘popular’ reaction to such a ‘weak on immigration’ move. Making such a move will of course, force the Daily Mail onto the backfoot as the truth is outed that there is actually a distinction between asylum/refugee status and more general immigration, and that actually people are a lot more humane in their thinking than the rightwing press would have them be.

But that’s not the state of affairs yet. At the moment, anti-Yarls Wood activity takes place outside the structure of the Labour Party, and there are Labour party members involved; it would be wrong to suggest that just because someone is in the Labour party that is all they do and think about (although it is the case for some).

At the moment the best way to get rid of Yarlswood is through non-party based coalition campaigning of the type set up (and well-resourced) by Power 2010 (and its predecessor Convention on Modern Liberty).

Sadly, for these civil liberties/democratic change groupings, asylum seekers rights are as far down the priority list as they are for the Labour party. The CoML in early 2009 did not have a single event about the ‘modern liberties’ of asylum seekers and refugees at its conference, which was dedicated to a different kind of liberty – the liberty of people who already have material resources and freedoms to maintain them (not in itself a bad thing).

Similarly, Power 2010 now has five pledges to put to MPs, none of which will benefit the people of Yarls Wood. Perhaps a place to start in an internet campaign of the type that will develop from this important post of Neil’s might start with getting Power 2010 to add, by popular acclaim from all at LibCon and associates, a sixth pledge to be signed by MPs:

‘ That I pledge, if elected, to campaign in the House, in whatever way I can, for the upholding of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child’, and the consequent closing of Yarlswood’.

Serco Group’s directors include Labour Lord, Baroness Ford: Labour like her so much that they made her boss of the Olympic Delivery Authority.


A number of people have died in their “care” , including 14 year old Adam Rickwood, a vulnerable boy who committed suicide after poor treatment atone of their detention centres in 2004.

Their privatisation interests are very widespread. For example Serco are part of a consortium currently trying to sue the Department of Health for millions because one of their PFI hospitals was cancelled.

Douglas Trainer, the Labour Students president of the National Union of Students, 1996-1998, and an active in Labour politics since then, is Serco’s media boss for their “Healthcare, Home Affairs & Welfare to Work” businesses – including , presumably, Yarls Wood and hospital privatisation.

Here , for example, Douglas Trainer apologising after his firm left a Cornish asthmatic suffering


These allegations are very serious – and I would guess that the women who have been on hunger strike are fighting their deportations.
They may have decided that you can refuse to co-operate with what they have been told to do (leave the country) and that even when locked up in Yarl’s Wood awaiting deportation, all is not lost.

If any officers (or whatever they are called) have been calling people ”black monkeys” then they should be fired and perhaps even prosecuted.
Why would anyone say such a thing? Has anyone ever heard of officials saying that to someones face in recent years. It would obviously be a sackable offence.

The stories about this maybe true, or they may be engineered in a similar way that the IRA built up support for it’s prisoners who refused to wash or wear prison uniforms and led to the hunger strike.

I would like to know what the government should do.
Not detain people pending deportation?

I would be happy for some kind of enquiry if it would get anywhere.
In this situation I don’t know if it would.

No doubt that many Labour members & supporters oppose degrading treatment at (and the very existence of) Yarls Wood and other immigration detention centres.

Sadly the straight answer to your question is that this squalid status quo is likely to remain while the climate of public opinion on migration and asylum remains as is. The way to change that is not primarily through the Labour Party but through external campaigning and supporting the organisation and resistance of migrants themselves.

9. the a&e charge nurse

[1] “Since when are prisons and detention centres run by private plc firms?”.

You surprise me, Claude.
NuLab are in thrall to the private sector a cannot hand out contracts quickly enough (funded by the tax payer, of course).

Private is better than publicly provided services – no need to bother with the rigmarole of gathering evidence to prove it is so?

Hi Neil,

Good post – I started to reply and it turned into quite a lengthy piece which I’ll write up this evening.

But in short, I think most activists and indeed many MPs share your views (I know that I do). I think that it is possible to win this argument and to imagine a future Labour leader and Labour government taking a different and more humane position on this issue.

There is quite a lot of legwork that we’ll need to do to achieve this, though. One sign of the scale of the challenge is that 61% of voters, including 46% of Labour voters, 43% of Lib Dem voters and 37% of Green voters, support a complete halt to immigration. On the other hand, the right-wing Mayor of London supports an earned amnesty for migrants who are here illegally.

The difference is that in London, the Labour Mayor and civil society worked together and argued for a more humane and compassionate policy, which Boris felt compelled to sign up to, whereas nationally, Labour tried to appease the anti-migrant lobby and ended up with a vile and inhumane system and most people thinking that they are soft on immigrants. I think there are lessons there which the Labour leadership could learn from.

One interesting point from the Citizens for Sanctuary research – the term “asylum-seeker” immediately conjures up negative conortations (the word “asylum” is associated with madness etc.) So part of the task is about changing the terms of the debate, possibly in terms of “sanctuary” rather than “asylum”.

“Will we ever hear a Labour leader complaining about the treatment of asylum seekers rather than excusing it?”

Not while Labour thinks its electoral success relies on courting reactionary floating voters in a handful of marginals, by generally showing how “tough” it is and how utterly unlike old Labour. The opinions of party activists- indeed even Labour backbenchers*- don’t seem to have had much influence since 1997. Why bother rallying the base when the few people who have even heard of Yarl’s Wood are still likely to vote Labour anyway?

(Of course I think this notion has been carried to counter-productive lengths, especially post-Iraq, to the point where even the most ardent Labourites are disgusted with the party, but Labour do still seem to rely on being able to mobilise a residual “for God’s sake, keep the Tories out” leftist vote when the chips are down.)

Dianne Abbott has called into question Meg Hiller MP for signing off a letter denying the allegations brought about by Guardian on the hunger striking women at Yarl’s Wood. And John McDonnell has called for an EDM on the same subject. But, Abbott’s name is not on the list of signatories for the EDM. Surely, if she had any real conviction about Meg Hillier’s failure, she would be calling into question her continued employment, right?

Carl, those are interesting positions from John McDonnell and Meg Hillier.

As was the title of that piece you linked too with the heading ”Women hunger strikers under threat of deportation”.

Meg Hillier’s letter is on the right hand side of this page.

Why are people on the left presuming the worst here? Hunger strike?
If people were on hunger strike for four weeks then it would be medically obvious.
Hillier says this:

In relation to recent articles on the ‘hunger strike’, we need to be clear about a number of things. The recent Guardian article claims that detainees are not eating and are getting sick. This is not the case. Whilst there are a small number of detainees refusing formal meals from the canteen, they are buying food from the centre’s shop and vending machines and having food delivered by visitors. They are all also drinking.

That’s not to say that Yarl’s Wood sounds like a good place though. It sounds pretty grim and is no place for children.

If people are against deportations then fair enough.
And if people have a political view on it like at Indimedia who say ”Support women in struggle at Yarl’s Wood” that’s fine too.

But it would be pretty disgraceful if these accusations against the people working at Yarl’s Wood were being fabricated and exaggerated – and being taken as gospel by people on the left who don’t really know any more than I do.

As for marks on peoples bodies and someone’s damaged finger and fingernail, there may well have been physical confrontations, and a window slammed shut on someones finger.

Breaking news: Alan Duncan’s gaffe in relation to those being detained as asylum seekers and refugees will be published on Thursday.

Going going gone?
This thread has only just started surely.

If it’s left like this, then those accusations about people working at Yarl’s Wood must be said to be in no way proven.
And the motive for fabrication and exaggeration is obviously there (as it’s a means to spike the whole institution – and stop their deportations).

I would like to know more about what happens at Yarl’s Wood, and why some people end up staying there for so long. Is it the people locked up themselves and facing deportation, and their legal representatives who cause the cases to be dragged out for so long?

Maybe a deportation programme at all is what’s wrong here.


“the term “asylum-seeker” immediately conjures up negative conortations”

Yes, I assume it’s a piece of deliberately created newspeak, in the same vein as “job seeker”.

I always use the word REFUGEE, as it is the correct term and doesn’t carry any NuLabCon political bagage.

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