A lawyer for inmates at a detention centre in Bedfordshire has called for immediate action to be taken following a damning report by the prisons watchdog.

Yarl’s Wood Centre, which holds more than 350 women who are waiting for their immigration status to be resolved, has been labelled a ‘place of national concern’ by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick.

An inspection which took place in April and May this year found that the centre was ‘failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held’; with Mr Hardwick, calling for ‘decisive action’ to be taken to ensure that women were detained as a ‘last resort’.

Violence, sexual contact and delays in women being detained for longer than necessary due to delays in processing cases, were amongst the key concerns raised during the investigation.

There were also reports of pregnant women being detained against the Home Office’s own policy, and a failure to act on reports of abdominal pain during early pregnancy on two separate occasions.

According to the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) 45% of female detainees at the centre also feel "unsafe" due to the uncertainty of their immigration status, poor healthcare and having too few visible staff.

In the six months leading up to the investigation a total of 894 women were released back into the community, with the report saying the high figure raised the question about the validity of their detention in the first place.

The Home Office has now commissioned a review to be carried out by former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw, who is expected to deliver his findings in the autumn.

Today, human rights lawyers at Leigh Day - who have represented a number of former residents at the centre in recent years – called for immediate action to be taken to protect the women currently housed at the facility.

Emma Jones, Solicitor at Leigh Day, said: “Whilst we welcome that the issues at Yarl’s Wood are now being highlighted, this report contains a number of deeply concerning factors with regards both the health and the wellbeing of the women currently being detained.

“From the delays in processing cases, through to the worrying lack of medical care and consideration delivered to pregnant women, it is clear that immediate action must now be taken to prevent others suffering as so many have to date.

“We have represented a number of people affected by the conditions at the centre over the years – many of whom say they felt they had their dignity taken from them - and feel strongly that it should be shut down pending the further investigation by the Home Office.”

In the coverage surrounding the report today Mr Hardwick was quoted as saying: "Yarl's Wood is rightly a place of national concern. Other well-respected bodies have recently called for time limits on administrative detention, and the concerns we have identified provide strong support for these calls.”

Emma Ginn, of charity Medical Justice, said: "Immigration removal centres are dangerous places for many vulnerable detainees. They should be closed on health grounds while a comprehensive and independent investigation is carried out.”

Jerome Phelps from the campaign group Detention Action, said: "It is high time for the government to step away from the routine detention of migrants, and instead to work with them to resolve their immigration cases in the community wherever possible."