7th Floor West Wing
Block B Whitgift Centre
15 Wellesley Road
Mrs A Blenkinsop
30th October 2008
Dear Mrs Blenkinsop
Thank you for meeting with Joe Heatley and myself at Barnett Hill yesterday (Wednesday 29th October). I explained my role as the Children’s Champion for the UK Border Agency and Joe Heatley’s role to provide the Agency with professional social work advice about the welfare of children. I hope these explanations assured you of our good intention in meeting with you.
I am grateful that you took the trouble to come to the conference centre to meet with me. I regret any additional trouble or expense this caused you, but it was the only way I could see you before taking up a new post in the North East of England. I had expected to be invited to attend an earlier meeting with you, arranged by the then head of our Detention Services, Brian Pollett. I suspect that this did not happen because Brian Pollett left this Agency some weeks ago.
You raised two concerns. The first and most important was that Baby C, a tiny infant, was left without food for 14 hours because of our failure to provide the particular formula feed she required. You were additionally concerned was that the Agency had not acknowledged this as a failing. Consequently you and your colleague Morgan Gallagher have been put to additional effort to seek acknowledgement and credible assurances that any identified failings were being addressed. In regard to your second concern you raised the fact that Morgan Gallagher had not yet met with Agency officials.
I think it would be helpful if I set out the facts as I understand them and then try to respond to your concerns in order. Baby C was twelve weeks old when the incident occurred. Following a prolonged period of illness with an upper respiratory tract infection, the infant was also suffering from chronic digestive tract problems resulting from the ingestion of mucus. A paediatrician at Bedford Hospital suspected that she may have developed lactose intolerance and provided sufficient special formula feed to last 72 hours before the mother and baby returned to Yarls Wood. As she prepared the last feed the baby’s mother asked the detention staff for more of the special formula, but there was none available. A member of staff sought medical advice and was told that the formula was only available on prescription. I am now told that this advice was wrong, although you confirmed that it is a widely held misconception. Again following medical advice, the staff member advised the mother that the baby could, and should, be sustained on boiled water and anti dehydration salts pending the issuing of a prescription and the procurement of further supplies of the formula. In the event the delay between feeds was 14 hours. A close watch was kept on the mother and infant who appeared to be reasonably comfortable.
Since the event occurred you have spent considerable time writing to and telephoning the agency about your concerns. You did not receive a response that satisfied you. You approached Members of Parliament who wrote on your behalf. The responses they received did not reassure you. You met Yarls Wood staff together with Morgan Gallagher. At that meeting you thought that the staff minimised your concerns regarding the lack of necessary food for the infant. They therefore could not reassure you that a similar incident would not occur again. Following this meeting there were further delays before your meeting with me.
Your first concern is that no infant should be deprived of food for 14 hours and particularly not while in an Immigration Removal Centre. Further you believe that more could and should have been done to ensure that the necessary formula did not run out and more effort should have been made to obtain new supplies promptly when it did. I can confirm in writing as I did at our meeting that I agree with you on all of these points.
The remedial steps that have been taken are as follows. The performance of all the staff involved has been reviewed. Underperformance has been addressed robustly and I am confident that the particular errors will not be repeated. I have asked a member of my staff who holds both medical and social work qualifications to examine the procedures and protocols for caring for children with special medical needs and to enable the implementation of improvements where she finds them to be necessary. As part of that review I am happy for her to meet with you and Morgan Gallagher to ensure your professional expertise in the care for infants is properly understood and valued. I have set a target for completion by the end of this calendar year. I have also asked that a more thorough going review of the medical governance arrangement for health services in our Detention Estate should take place. This review will take considerably longer to achieve. I hope you agree that I have dealt fairly and openly with your first concern.
You are also concerned that our responses to you and your colleagues were unnecessarily delayed and defensive. It would have been a relief to you and your colleague if you had known the steps that the agency was actually taking in response to this incident. You also believe that an earlier meeting with a sufficiently senior member of the Agency would have ensured that the replies to the letters sent on your behalf by Members of Parliament were more helpful. Again I can confirm as I said at our meeting that delays should not have occurred and that the Agency needs to be more welcoming of well meant criticism from professionals concerned for the welfare of children. I apologise on behalf of the Agency for the delay and personally for the fact that I did not meet with you much earlier. I am aware that you incurred expenses which you have met from your private resources and I am happy to seek ways to provide a reasonable reimbursement.
You are now aware that the Agency has arranged for the full time presence of Bedfordshire social workers at the centre who have an independent oversight of children’s welfare. They can be contacted at the centre during office hours. You have Joe Heatley’s telephone number as a contact point for the UK Border Agency Children’s Champion’s office. I am confident that my office will respond quickly on any matter concerning children. There are also Agency wide improvements that will ensure better performance across the Agency. An important example is the recent appointment of a Chief Inspector for the Agency. This is an independent statutory role intended to prevent deficiencies in our performance including the way children are safeguarded and the way complaints are dealt with.
In closing, I would like to repeat my apology for the delay in resolving your concerns and my gratitude for the persistence of your concern for children in Yarls Wood and for the trouble you took in coming to meet with me.
Director, Organisational Design & Development Directorate (OD³)