A letter to the Home Office Government Information Service and the HO Director of Communications, from a concerned citizen of Hastings.
One of the more than 60 people who attended our online event Challenging the Barracks, Rosie Brocklehurst has already taken up our ‘Tell 5 people’ campaign and written to friends and family across the world to inform them of the facts of current UK Government treatment of hundreds of people seeking asylum who have been forced to live crammed into ex-army barracks where they cannot keep a safe distance from one another. This has resulted in a massive Covid outbreak. Among the gravely troubling aspects of the situation is the Home Office’s repeated insistence, directly in the face of this outbreak, that the barracks provide a Covid-safe environment for the people held there, and are more than good enough for those who are seeking asylum.
Rosie has now also written to the Home Office Government Information Service and to Simon Baugh, the HO Director of Communications, to express her serious concerns about the accuracy of the press statement issued after the recent high court hearing in which:
“the Home Office conceded that it was arguable that the use of Napier barracks to house the group was unlawful and in breach of human rights”. (See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/feb/16/home-office-were-advised-not-to-house-asylum-seekers-in-napier-barracks).
Rosie Brocklehurst was a DfEE speechwriter and advisor for the late Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP in 1999-2000, and worked also as a Government Press Officer. Later, as Director of Communications for the charity Addaction, she worked closely with the Home Office on Drug and Alcohol policy issues when Rt Hon David Blunkett was Home Secretary.
Here is her letter.
Misleading and erroneous Press Comment
I am writing to complain about a comment made by the Home Office communications and news department about conditions at the Napier Barracks in Folkestone. I have copied the new Director of Communications into this complaint.
I am asking how it came to pass that following the comments made in court by Judge Martin Chamberlain, the media were given a response that was not only wrong in most parts, but in substance was offensive not only to truth but to transparency?
The comment made by the Home office news team as reported in the Guardian on the 16th of February was as follows:
“The government provides safe, warm and secure accommodation with three nutritious meals served a day, all paid for by the taxpayer. Napier has previously accommodated army personnel and it is wrong to say it is not adequate for asylum seekers. The Home Office has worked extremely closely with Public Health England to minimise risks of Coronavirus and this track record will be robustly defended in court.”
This comment was almost completely wrong and it also contains malicious overtones.
- It is the case that Judge Martin Chamberlain said in court that “Public Health England (PHE) advised the Home Office on 7 September last year (2020) that dormitories were not suitable accommodation during a pandemic….this advice was apparently not followed.”
- It is ostensibly true that at least 107 asylum seekers became ill with Covid-19 because of the dormitories they were held in at the Barracks. It therefore follows that the accommodation was not ‘safe and secure’, terms used not only by Public Health England but by the Prime Minister in describing conditions we must all follow for protection during Covid.
- It is irrefutable that Public Health England advised the Home office that the dormitories were not suitable accommodation as early as 7 September, the time the 400 asylum seekers were being moved into the Barracks.
- I have it on good authority that the food within the Barracks was often extremely poor and undercooked, rendering it inedible and likely to cause food poisoning. This may be challenged, but there is a strong case to say this is true and that your comments about the food are wrong.
- It is not wrong to say that the Barracks are inadequate for asylum seekers and how you can say they are adequate as you do in your press comment, is surreal.
- It is irrefutable that no army personnel have been placed in the Barracks for any lengthy period and certainly not for fifteen years. Folkestone Council is in possession of a 2020 report that the Barracks are not fit and should be pulled down.
- It is an untruth to say that the Barracks were properly warm. Many of the people were cold and asking urgently for extra heating long before the heating was broken during the days after the fire.
I also contend that the taxpayers to whom you refer would not wish to contribute to the extortionate pay of Mr King, the owner of Clearsprings who was paid £3.5 million in 2019-20 and who operates the Barracks under a Home Office contract. This contract is supposed to include multiple services which did not exist (such as translation services in ten languages). My own understanding is that Clearsprings did not offer value for money, but what it provided instead were inhumane Covid-spreading conditions in Barracks known to be unfit for human habitation, where asylum seekers were packed together, separated by hung sheets, with no security, safety or warmth and disgusting food.
May I also remind the press team that my complaint concerns press information that has at its centre human lives. We are talking about young men, seekers of asylum in the UK, that we as a country are committed to help having signed international agreements to do; who were already deeply traumatised and many of whom had been tortured and who had suffered incalculable loss in various war zones.
I think you will find that what I say is far more trustworthy than the information you have disseminated to the wider public via press briefings. On top of that, there was virtually nothing in terms of health services even when Covid began to be spread, and only one nurse for 400 people who was not on call for more than 8 hours midweek, and whose only recourse to medication was occasional paracetamol. PPE was not provided. Sewage flushed back up the toilet system and toilets were blocked. There was no soap for washing the human body nor household soap for cleaning the Barracks. Antibiotics for abscesses, bacterial pneumonia and e-coli were not available.
- It is the duty of civil servants not to mislead the Public whose taxes also pay their salaries.
- It is particularly important for Press Officers and other communications personnel to uphold the highest levels of factual accuracy and to guide and advise politicians who may wish to make political points that may sometimes fall short of the truth. It is not an easy job to advise ministers who have a particular agenda and ideology.
The consequences of being economic with the truth on behalf of ministers are far too serious. In my view, falsehoods in press briefings diminishes the work of the Home Office, supposedly one of the ‘great’ Departments of State. The communications team at the Home Office should not be used to score political points and add to a racist narrative nor be employed to increase anti-immigration feeling whipped up by Ministers within the Department of State. A policy of creating hostile environments in existential terms as well as in fact, destabilises even further the fabric of our nation and undermines already fragile race relations in British society, and this will become even more apparent in the months and years ahead.