Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice


Publication of the Committee's 25th Report, Session 2007-08

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"The Home Office project to build on a site at Bicester in Oxfordshire an accommodation centre for asylum seekers embodied lack of foresight, poor business planning and a startling absence of common sense. No development has taken place on the site, which is lying semi-derelict, and the taxpayer has lost some £29 million.

"A proposal to build an asylum centre, especially in a rural location, is always going to provoke opposition in the local community. The Home Office's business case inexplicably took no account of this probability - nor of the strength of feeling against the centre from national and local refugee groups. No effective contacts were established with local interest groups and MPs. The serious risk of planning delay was never recognized and so never managed.

"The business case developed by the Home Office also failed to give explicit recognition to its own changes to the asylum system. And, of course, the number of people seeking asylum was dropping.

"I note the recent government announcement that the Bicester site will be subject to a feasibility study to determine its suitability as a secure detention facility for asylum seekers. The local community deserves a quick announcement of the Home Office's intentions."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 25th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Home Office, examined the reasons why the cancellation of the wider accommodation centre policy resulted in nugatory expenditure of £29.1 million being noted in the Home Office's financial statements. The Committee also examined the potential future use of the Bicester site.

Between 2001-02 and 2005-06, the Home Office spent £29.1 million planning and designing a purpose-built accommodation centre for asylum seekers at Bicester. It was an innovative pilot project and formed part of a wider Home Office initiative to cope with rising numbers of asylum applications by speeding up the processing of asylum claims and reducing the social tensions and the risk of fraud inherent in the way that asylum seekers were dispersed around the UK.

Falling numbers of asylum applicants, a rise in the projected net cost of the planned facility at Bicester, and a general improvement in the speed of processing asylum applications under the existing system, led to the cancellation of the Bicester Centre and the shelving of the wider accommodation centre policy in June 2005. As the project was cancelled before building work began, the only benefit to the taxpayer is the semi-derelict site, valued at some £4.6 million, which remains in the Home Office's ownership.

The strength of opposition to the proposed accommodation centres from national refugees groups and local resident groups, which was identified during the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, was not fully reflected in the business case for Bicester. The business case also did not take into account the potential adverse impact on cost and delivery arising from a protracted planning delay. The decision by the Home Office to sign the contract with its preferred bidder before completing the outline and detailed planning processes increased the risk of nugatory expenditure.

The lessons to be learnt from Bicester have wider application to government bodies planning innovative projects. These lessons include: the need to strengthen corporate governance arrangements where consultants are engaged at an early stage, to co-ordinate policy changes in different parts of an organisation together with consideration of external events, and to increase the effectiveness and scope of consultation with the local community and other stakeholders.