PRESSURE is mounting on the cross-party joint administration at Durham County Council over controversial plans to house women seeking asylum in a notorious former detention centre.

The Ministry of Justice wants to reopen Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, near Consett, to create an Immigration Detention and Removal Centre for female refugees.

The Government intends to create the facility on the site of the Medomsley Detention Centre for boys, where appalling historic abuse took place over several decades, resulting in life-long trauma for many victims.

Durham County Council, now run by a coalition of Lib Dems, Tories and independent councillors, is being urged to oppose the plans by members of the County Durham Labour group in opposition.

The Northern Echo:

The former Hassockfield Secure Training Centre site

Labour councillors have written to council leader, Amanda Hopgood, and potentially divisively, their calls are echoed by her fellow North East Liberal Democrats.

The party’s regional conference unanimously backed a motion unreservedly condemning the unsuitability of Government plans to reopen the facility citing fundamental human rights concerns about the ethical and legal basis of the Home Office’s policy of detention of vulnerable people.

Diana Simpson, of Durham Liberal Democrats, who proposed the motion, said: “Detention adds further trauma to people in desperate situations, particularly women, many of whom have been subjected to all kinds of violence, abuse, and exploitation on their journeys to seek sanctuary.

“Putting people in detention when they have sought our assistance and mercy is intolerant and inhumane.

“It is a prison sentence without trial with no knowledge of when it will end and what will befall them when it does.

“We should be opposed to all detention of refugees, who can be just as effectively processed whilst living in the community.”

The party has said it is highly critical of the unsuitability of the location, which is more than 300 miles from Heathrow and Gatwick deportation flights, lacks appropriate legal, linguistic or emotional support services for asylum seekers, and is on a site.

Last February, Durham County Council received a planning application to demolish the Hassockfield centre and build 127 new dwellings, including 25 for social housing, with over £900,000 secured for Section 106 funding.

However, this January, the MoJ unveiled plans to develop the site into a Category 3 style prison for refugee women.

The letter to the council leader has been signed by Councillors Rochelle Charlton-Lainé and John Purvis.

The Northern Echo:

Rochelle Charlton-Lainé

Cllr Charlton-Lainé said: “Not only does this site have a toxic history and serves as an upsetting reminder of a dark time in the area’s history, the MoJ’s decision, taken without any consultation with the council, has also deprived Consett families of 127 high-quality new homes and 25 much-needed social housing dwellings.

“The MoJ’s decision to reopen this centre proves once again how little regard this Conservative Government has for County Durham.

“However, we’re writing to the leader of the council in the hope that the new coalition will demonstrate a higher degree of care for our county’s residents and oppose this controversial new facility.”

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Activists have launched the “No To Hassockfield” campaign, a cross-party, cross-community campaign, focusing on human rights and human dignity.

Cllr Purvis said: “Consett and Medomsley communities deserve a clean break from the site’s history of extreme sexual and physical abuse, human rights groups are concerned about the treatment of women in detention facilities, detainees at other similar facilities have spoken of racial abuse, poor hygiene facilities and experiences of sexual abuse...this centre is not something we want in County Durham and it is not something we should have in a modern, civilized society.”

North-West Durham MP Richard Holden is supportive of the plan arguing it will create around 200 jobs for the area.

The Northern Echo:

Council leader Amanda Hopgood

Cllr Amanda Hopgood said: “We can confirm we have received the letter from the Labour group and will be considering the content before responding.

“The council was informed of the Government’s plans to no longer proceed with a housing scheme and instead re-open the centre for detention purposes under the previous Labour-controlled administration, in autumn 2020.

“The Labour cabinet members at the time were made aware of the change and also the fact that re-opening the centre for detention purposes could proceed without planning approval being sought from the council as it did not constitute a change of use.”

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