The Home Office has been accused of “misdirection” of public funds after it emerged that it had lavished £6.4 million last year on an internment centre for migrants awaiting deportation which only held 62 people, just 38 of whom were subsequently deported.
The Cedars in West Sussex has been likened to a “country house hotel” by immigration service sources, as the house, set in extensive grounds, boasts nine self-contained apartments, multiple play centres and a gym, The Times has reported.
But the requirement to keep it fully staffed even when empty has caused the huge bill to be racked up, working out at £103,193 per migrant for the whole year. As the vast majority of those who stayed there did so for only three nights, that works out at £34,402 a night, falling to £14,743 a night for those who stayed a whole week.
Commenting on the figures, the former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw said: “My overriding impression was of a misdirection of public money that could be better used for other purposes. The centre has had no residents on either of the two occasions I have visited.”
Opened in 2011 by then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the centre was part of a coalition pledge to end the detention of children over immigration matters. For the last four years, the centre has been used to provide accommodation for failed asylum seeker families and illegal immigrant families before their removal from the country.
But last February a whistleblower denounced the centre as a “white elephant”, saying that it often went ten weeks at a time without any residents, despite hosting a staff of 80 people, from cleaners to cooks, working on shifts.
“It is completely empty most of the time,” the whistleblower told Crawley News.
“Cedars was set up, I understand, by Nick Clegg as his baby – and it’s been a white elephant since it opened.”
Describing the facility as “better than Butlins,” the insider added: “I’d go there for a week’s holiday.
“Cedars has luxury apartmentsAnd when I say luxury, I mean luxury. You’ve got a massive TV in the room, Sky TV and a DVD player, a luxury armchair and a whole fitted kitchen of the highest quality. If you don’t want to cook a meal in the kitchen you go down to the lounge and staff will cook your meal for you.
“You’re talking about a basketball court, a massive play area for children, and a gym. And there’s nobody in there.”
Cedars also boasts a library with a range of books in different languages, landscaped gardens, a “pets’ corner”, and a multi-faith prayer room.
Since then, members of Parliament suggested that the government might find a better use for the property.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said: “This centre ought to be providing value for money because it is only a short-term facility before people are removed from this country.
“The huge amount spent on it seems excessive, especially at a time when the Home Office is facing huge cuts in its budget. I hope ministers look at these shocking costs again.”
Dia Chakravarty, political director at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Nobody in their right mind could have thought this was an appropriate amount to spend on providing shelter to such a small number of people.”
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “The low level of use of the Cedars is a testament to the success of the returns process and that more families are accepting voluntary assistance to leave the UK when they no longer have a lawful basis to stay here.” She added that the cost of accommodation for families who were being removed from the country was kept under review.