Immigration minister Caroline Nokes was left quietly fuming when confronted with her failure to check whether asylum seeker families were living in rat-infested accommodation.
The Tory MP was challenged about a damning report – handed to the Home Office in July – which uncovered the appalling conditions in which mothers seeking sanctuary in the UK with their babies were forced to live.
Nokes insisted the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who passed information to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) for a report had refused to share information with the Home Office.
But Cooper later revealed she had already discovered that Nokes’ department had only requested the information on Monday.
The research included detailed accounts of properties that were damp, dirty and infested with vermin. In one flat, a mother and baby unit for seven women with children under the age of two had “blocked drains, an infestation of rodents, damp and mould”.
Nokes was questioned by the Commons’ Home Affairs Committee chair, Yvette Cooper.
When asked by the Labour MP if she had located the flat in question, Nokes simply replied “telepathy is not my first skill”.
Cooper responded: “This is mums with kids under two. These are families who are a very long from home. Who knows what traumas they have been though along the way?
“Minister, weren’t you shocked when you saw this?”
Nokes said “of course”, but said the ICIBI had not said which properties were involved so the government “could clamp down on service providers that weren’t meeting our standards”.
She insisted asylum accommodation was inspected every month and she had “reasonable confidence”.
Cooper pointed out that July “was a long time ago” and that ministers should have found the families.
Since 2012, the Government has contracted the asylum accommodation and support service out to the outsourcing giants G4S, Clearsprings and Serco.
Cooper continued to press Nokes on the case study in the report.
These are families who are a very long from home. Who knows what traumas they have been though along the way? Minister, weren’t you shocked when you saw this? Yvette Cooper
Nokes glared at Cooper and said NGOs (non-governmental organisation) had inserted the case study into the report on an anonymous basis.
“We have asked for it,” she said. “One of the challenges is that if information isn’t shared with us it is very difficult for us to find the info if they won’t give it to us.”
Cooper told Nokes that the Government’s contracts with private providers and should take responsibility.
“This is your contract,” she said. “This is your responsibility.”
When challenged again, Nokes repeated: “We’ve asked for it. We’ve asked for it.”
Cooper then told Nokes she was aware the Home Office requested the information just days ago and that the inspectorate had shared all details, adding: “To be honest, minister, you didn’t need telepathy all you needed was a telephone in order to be able to find this information.”
Nokes glared and held Cooper’s gaze as she replied: “I would be pleased to receive it.”
Paul Morrison, director of resettlement, asylum support and integration at the Home Office, said NGOs had been reluctant to share the information as it was disclosed on a confidential basis.
Cooper said ministers had since July to locate the property, adding: “You do know how utterly lame that sounds, don’t you.”
Cooper later said she has received assurances from the inspectorate.
The report also said that in the 22 months to January 31 this year, only a quarter (24%) of 8,313 properties inspected were found to comply with standards.
Another 3,567 (43%) were “not fit for purpose” or classed as “urgent”, meaning contractors had to take action within one working day and make a permanent repair within a week.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Whilst this report covers a small sample of the 12,000 properties for asylum seekers, the Government is committed to improving the service in the areas the Inspector has highlighted.
“Our comprehensive action plan will support customers in raising issues with their accommodation and ensure vulnerable people receive a more tailored service.
“In addition, we have restructured our routine inspections so that our approach to managing the contracts and accommodation standards is more consistent nationally.