The Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into immigration detention has released its report which strongly censures “every part of the immigration detention system”. The inquiry was initially triggered in response to the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ programme which uncovered shocking abuse in Brook House immigration removal centre. Preceded by two reports from former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Stephen Shaw and another by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, it continues and elevates the condemnation of Home Office detention policy and practice.
The committee has incorporated a fantastically broad set of concerns voiced by NGOs, practitioners, and those who have been detained. It makes a number of uncompromising recommendations including judicial oversight of detention after 72 hours and a 28-day limit on immigration detention. It finds that “the Home Office has shown a shockingly cavalier attitude to the deprivation of human liberty and the protection of people’s basic rights”, and that it has overseen “serious failings in almost every area of the immigration detention process”. Despite not demanding an end to detention altogether, the 110-page report did not pull any punches.
The committee focused on a number of areas of immigration detention that Bail for Immigration Detainees has been most concerned about over the years:
The Home Office’s Adults at Risk policy, established to prevent the detention of individuals who are “particularly vulnerable to harm in detention”, has again come under particular scrutiny. Statistics suggest that it has achieved the opposite of its stated aim. The introduction of the policy was immediately accompanied by a sharp decline in the proportion of Rule 35 reports leading to release. The committee recognised that the policy had “increased the burden on vulnerable people to evidence the risk of harm”, and urged the government to “revert to its previous policy of a presumption not to detain vulnerable individuals except “in very exceptional circumstances”.
The committee recognised the damage done by changes to the bail accommodation regime since the repeal of section 4(1)(c), which has effectively barred homeless detainees from accessing publicly funded bail accommodation. The report says that it is
unacceptable that some detainees are being forced to languish in immigration detention or in some cases are being thrown onto the streets because the Home Office is not ensuring people can secure accommodation post release. This is unacceptable and a breach of people’s fundamental human rights.
This reflects the frustration of NGOs which have been urging the Home Office to “urgently review the new immigration bail provisions introduced in January 2018, which, a year on, are clearly not working — in particular to ensure that a lack of accommodation is not preventing immigration bail”.
It is good to see the report recognise the perversity of the Home Office’s current position that asylum seekers in detention don’t satisfy the destitution test even if they would be homeless and destitute upon release, and thus cannot access section 95 (asylum support) accommodation: “the poorest asylum seekers are locked up for longer simply for being poor”.
Casework decisions and delays
The report finds that Home Office decision-makers attribute “excessive weight to absconding and non-compliance which… could simply mean that an individual has missed a reporting appointment because of illness”. The department frequently argues that detention is not used as a last resort once all other options have been exhausted.
In addition, the report recognises that “Home Office case-working inefficiencies are unnecessarily prolonging people’s detention”. It points out the particular link between bureaucratic inefficiency and routine use of prisons to detain foreign nationals under immigration powers for long periods at the end of a custodial sentence. The report argues that this number is far too high and that “people should not be held in prison beyond the end of a custodial sentence”.
At the same time the report slams reforms made in response to Shaw’s damning 2016 report that seek to improve “oversight” mechanisms. Many of these simply involved oversight by other parts of the Home Office. The committee rightly queries “whether a process that remains internal can be truly independent”.
Immigration detention in prisons
Immigration detainees held in prisons face multiple and compounding disadvantages over and above those faced by immigration detainees held in IRCs. This includes lack of access to communication and legal advice, and the absence of a Rule 35 process or anything similar whereby a person can have their vulnerability recognised and detention reviewed. The report states that “it is neither just nor right to deny people detained in prisons the same access to legal safeguarding that is available to detainees held in Immigration Removal Centres”.
As with Shaw’s 2016 report, the committee also recognised the link between the late serving of detention documentation at the end of a migrant’s prison sentence, and incidents of self-harm. This issue came into the spotlight recently with the tragic death of Michal Netyks, who committed suicide after being told on his release date that he would be remaining in prison under immigration powers.
The four-month automatic bail process has been repeatedly championed by the Home Secretary as an important reform. In this report it is harshly criticised for excluding those who have committed offences and are facing deportation, and for not giving detainees adequate time or automatic legal advice. The report reveals that it has led to just 17 grants of bail.
Children’s best interests
In BID’s experience, the Home Office routinely fails to fulfil its statutory duty under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. Section 55 requires the department to make all its decisions having regard to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, with the best interests of the child being a primary consideration. BID’s experience shows that when a decision to detain a parent is made, the welfare of the children affected is rarely considered. The committee, despite recognising the safeguards contained in Home Office caseworker guidance, argues that “this guidance is not always being followed”. In no other setting in the UK could children’s best interests be treated with such cavalier disregard and it is regrettable that this was not expressed in stronger terms in the report.
Whilst criticising every aspect of immigration detention policy and practice, the report also quotes G4S whistle-blower Nathan Ward who gives insight into the way that fear of a jingoistic media percolates through the Home Office and shapes immigration policy.
While working at Brook House, a senior civil servant ‘was telling us that we were under tremendous pressure to get people through the system and deport them in that year in particular, because it was that year’s statistics that would be reported just before the general election.’
Former Home Secretary David Blunkett painted a similar picture in his closing remarks to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. “At times when I was there”, Blunkett recalled, “the pressure (from the press) was so great that we said to staff… you really have to up the removals, because we are being made monkeys of”.
The report also criticises conditions in detention including chronic understaffing, poor quality healthcare, excessive use of lock-in regimes, lack of activities, crowded and unsanitary cells, a culture of abuse, and poor whistleblowing procedures. It incorporates chilling testimonies from people who have been in detained. No aspect of the inhumanity of immigration detention is left untouched. The question is now simply how many more of these reports we need to read before this barbaric process is finally abolished.
In the next month BID will be publishing a report of testimonies from 89 people held in detention.