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Home Office knew of fire risk at barracks two months before blaze, court hears

Diane Taylor
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The Home Office was warned about the high risk of fire two months before a blaze broke out at a barracks used to house asylum seekers, the high court has heard.

Eight fire engines were sent to tackle the serious blaze at Napier barracks in Folkestone on 29 January. Nobody was injured but it caused significant damage.

Six asylum seekers, previously accommodated at Napier, have brought a case claiming that the home secretary’s use of the barracks to house them was unlawful. On Wednesday the court heard that an inspection by the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate on 24 November 2020 found serious and significant fire risks at the barracks. Inspectors ordered the Home Office to draw up an action plan within 28 days.

One of the identified fire risks was the use by asylum seekers of bed sheets or curtains draped between one bed and the next in the hope of providing some privacy and some protection against Covid. Half of approximately 400 residents at Napier contracted Covid in January and February of this year.

Related: Priti Patel’s detention policies found to breach human rights rules

New information also emerged from an as yet unpublished inspection report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the independent chief inspector of Borders and Immigration. Unusually, a summary of the inspectors’ early findings was published last month. However, it emerged in court that on 21 March the Home Office was sent further information from the inspectors which identified that there had been seven suicide attempts and seven serious incidents of self-harm. All residents had felt depressed at some point and one third felt suicidal. The Home Office disclosed the findings to lawyers for the asylum seekers on the eve of Wednesday’s hearing.

The asylum seekers bringing the case argue that conditions at the barracks breached the Immigration and Asylum Act, that the Home Office had no reasonable process for assessing suitability before and while at barracks, that being housed at Napier breached their human rights and amounted to false imprisonment.

While all of the previous Napier residents moved in from September 2020 have now been moved out by the Home Office about 45 new people have been placed there in the last few days. Some have lodged further legal challenges about conditions and it is understood that some of them have already been moved out of the barracks.

Tom Hickman, QC, representing four of the asylum seekers, said: “Our case is that the camp is squalid, ill equipped and lacking in fundamental privacy.” He added that there had been a “total system failure” at Napier.

The court heard that Gail Locock, director of infection prevention and control at Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group, concluded that an outbreak of Covid at Napier was inevitable and had said the barracks could never be made Covid secure.

Mr Justice Linden, hearing the case, said: “The impression I have got is that there has been a process of improvement.”

The case continues.