PhD Researcher

Exploring independent, hyperlocal news

What can we learn from Yarl’s Wood allegations?

Outsourcing harms women.

This story and the associated links contained within it come with a trigger warning.

The latest revelations of allegations of abuse in the justice system is a damning blow to private sector delivery of public services, while the cuts to legal aid may prevent further cases of abuse coming to light.

In the Observer last week, the story of ‘Tanja’ reveals the systemic abuse of women in Yarl’s Wood immigration centre, women entrusted to a failing public sector keen to save money. Since its publication, others have come forward to corroborate her story.

One of them, a Nigerian woman resident in the UK since 1999 revealed that “[s]ome of the women are succumbing to whatever they are being propositioned to do. Some of the guards are touching the women; the girls are bring promised that they are going to get their freedom.”

Another woman from Lesotho who has been detained twice in Yarl’s Wood – run by private sector outsourcing giant Serco – maintains contact with other detainees in the centre and provided further details.

“They give these ladies the impression that if you sleep with them they can help by putting in a word for you to be released or help with your case. Most of the time women sleep with the guards hoping that if they sleep with that person I am going to get a favour in return.”

The issue of consent and the lack of it is an interesting one here, with the abuse of power at its very heart.

Feminist lawyer at Birnberg Pierce, Harriet Wistrich, who is representing some of the alleged victims, suggested to the Observer that “questions needed to be asked about whether consent could ever be freely given by individuals who were in such a vulnerable situation.”

She said the women in the centre “are some of the most vulnerable you can imagine. Many have escaped horrific abuse in their own countries; most are very isolated from friends and family. The state has a duty to investigate such serious allegations, but it has repeatedly failed. Now the government wants to remove legal aid altogether for detainees and foreign nationals, giving a green light to abuse at Yarl’s Wood to continue.”

In the Telegraph, Natasha Walter questioned whether there is a case for detaining women in immigration centres at all.

“Although many British people are unaware of the fact, women who have sought asylum can be locked up for any amount of time in the UK. This can have a shocking effect on women who are already traumatised from the abuses they have fled” she writes.

This is not the first case we have seen where women already traumatised have been effectively retraumatised at the hands of private sector companies in the interests of saving public funds.

WVoN has previously reported on a number of serious concerns raised by social enterprise Kazuri about G4S’ provision of housing to asylum seekers, including housing for asylum seekers deemed unfit for human habitation; allegations that G4S has ‘ignored’ housing problems, despite complaints from residents; and complaints of intimidation and sexual harassment.

Despite worrying failures to deliver public services under lucrative contracts with the private sector, G4S, and other corporations like it, continue to be awarded such contracts, not least in the violence against women sector.

More broadly, cuts to the public sector are directly affecting the ability of women to withstand and challenge such failures.

In the Observer, Nick Cohen highlights that without lawyers such as Harriet Wistrich, the paper “would not have published a word about Yarl’s Wood.”

Yet, he continues, “she will not be able to carry on bringing cases like this to the public’s attention for much longer” due to the cuts to legal aid.

These cuts will affect the ability of lawyers like Wistrich and her clients to challenge state failures at all.

Tooks Chambers, the firm that represented the family of Stephen Lawrence and played a role in the Hillsborough Inquiry, recently announced it is to be dissolved, citing the Coalition government’s cuts to legal aid as the reason for closure.

In a statement, the Chambers confirmed that “[t]he dissolution of Chambers is the direct result of government policies on Legal Aid. The public service we provide is dependent on public funding. 90% of our work is publicly funded. The government policies led by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling are cumulatively devastating the provision of legal services and threatening the rule of law.”

The ever increasing involvement of the private sector in the delivery of public services to some of the most vulnerable groups in society should have all of us concerned about the direction in which the public sector is headed.

Moreover, the reluctance of the government to address the impact of their policy and procurement practices fails to provide those affected with much hope for the future.

Activists are working hard to raise awareness of the impact of the austerity measures and privatisation of public services.

One such campaign is 10,000 Cuts and Counting, a “ceremony of remembrance and solidarity for those who have had their lives devastated by the austerity programme, including more than 10,000 people who died shortly after undergoing the Atos Work Capability Assessment”.

The assessments – described by the campaign as ‘degrading’ – are contracted to outsourcing company Atos by the government to assess the needs of people receiving benefits related to disability and ill health.

The campaign took its name following a Freedom of Information request to the DWP, which revealed that between January 2011 and November 2011, 10,600 people died during or within six weeks of being put through the Atos Work Capability Assessment

Such campaigns are reliant on members of the public to get involved and express their dissatisfaction with government rhetoric and practice.

Will people rise to the challenge? Or is the impact of the Coalition’s public sector policy still flying beneath the radar to a public often more interested in X Factor than the implications of their X at the ballot box?

Nick Cohen provides a sobering summary on the case of Yarl’s Wood:

“There are few votes in defending legal aid and none in defending public money going to that most despised group: illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. Even Observer readers may not want to hear about them and would much prefer to see a piece on Miley Cyrus. If so, don’t worry. By this time next year, the sources for stories like ours on the women of Yarl’s Wood will have disappeared.

“It will be as if they don’t exist.”

An edited version of this story also appeared on Women’s Views on News on 26th September 2013.