The Home Secretary has conceded that the investigation into abuse at Brook House immigration removal centre will now be a full public inquiry. The announcement follows a High Court decision in June 2019 that an ombudsman’s report was insufficient under human rights law.
Lawyers for the victims welcomed the news, but criticised the “inexplicable delay” in getting to this point.
It was over two years ago that the BBC’s Panorama programme exposed shocking abuse of immigration detainees by staff at Brook House, adjacent to Gatwick Airport. The Home Office refused an independent enquiry until, under legal pressure, it handed the job to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
The ombudsman’s “bespoke special investigation” would not, however, have held public hearings or been able to compel witnesses (such as detention centre guards) to appear. Some Brook House victims challenged the set-up as a violation of the government’s duty to them under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mrs Justice May (no relation) agreed. In a judgment handed down in June, she found that the investigation “needed statutory powers to compel witnesses” and doubting whether “private hearings could secure sufficient accountability”.
Priti Patel has now converted the ombudsman’s investigation into a proper statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. That means, among other things, public hearings (section 18) and the power to order people to give evidence (section 21) on pain of imprisonment (section 35).
Kate Eves, an independent prison safety consultant, was to have carried out the original ombudsman’s enquiry and will now chair the statutory enquiry. It is due to report within a year.
Lewis Kett of Duncan Lewis, who represents one of the Brook House victims, told Free Movement:
Although there is still much to be resolved, we are pleased that the Secretary of State has finally confirmed this investigation will be converted into a formal public inquiry. The High Court judgment from June made this inevitable but the Home Office continued to drag their feet and cause further inexplicable delay.
The inquiry’s full terms of reference are in the Home Secretary’s written statement, released yesterday as Parliament was being dissolved for the general election. Patel said that “from today, the Inquiry will have statutory powers to compel witnesses and establish the truth of what took place at Brook House. I wish Kate Eves and all at the Inquiry every success in taking forward this important piece of work”.
Kett added that it was “typical of this current government that they would make this announcement just as this parliament is coming to end, no doubt in the hope of burying this important development”.