Defending the Indefensible? – The Government’s response to the Detention Inquiry Report in Parliament so far – 10 March 2015

By the Detention Forum team

The week following the inspirational launch of the landmark APPG Detention Inquiry Report on 3rd March and the Channel 4 exposure of conditions in Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth detention centres, we’ve seen Home Office Ministers providing some welcome reassurances. Clearly, more lobbying efforts are required to secure political commitments concerning future detention policy, but this is probably the very first time that the issue of immigration detention has become a mainstream political issue.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, in the Lords debate on the day of the launch, not unreasonably suggested a 28 day limit on detention, “would go quite a long way to solving the sort of problems in evidence at Yarl’s Wood”. He was one of the Inquiry Panel members.

Richard Fuller, Conservative MP for Bedford, also one of the Inquiry Panel members, championed the findings of the Inquiry Report, the same day, by saying: “the issue is not just individual people; it is the policy of the overuse of detention in managing immigration. That policy was introduced by the last Labour Government and has been continued by the coalition Government. When will the two Front Benches wake up and smell the coffee? Immigration detention is costly, ineffective and unjust. It costs millions of pounds a year. Some 70% of people who go into immigration detention go back into the community.”

However The Home Office response to the Inquiry report was low-key and evolved from Karen Bradley, Conservative MP for Stratfordshire Moorelands and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, saying on 3rd March:

“I have a copy of it, and I have to say that it is quite lengthy. I have not had a chance to get through all its points, but I assure her that I will look at it, and I will make sure that we respond to it.”

to Lord Bates saying on the 5th March that the Home Secretary was:

“Looking very closely at that very important report, particularly in the context of the very disturbing allegations made about Yarl’s Wood”.

So what of the 28 day limit? The pressure is clearly on.

Karen Bradley MP told the Commons: “I agree that people have been kept in detention for too long. That has happened because the previous Government’s immigration system allowed up to 17 appeals. The Immigration Act 2014, which we brought in, brings that number down to four. I hope that we will see a difference in the length of time people spend in detention. It is not something that any of us want to see, but it is a necessary evil if we are to have a fair, robust immigration system.”, making a tenuous connection between the changes brought in by the Immigration Act 2014 and the length of time people are held in detention centres.  Lord Bates when asked about the 28 day limit in the Lords, referred the House to Baroness William’s defeated amendment to the Immigration Bill 2014 which sought a cap of 60 days. (House of Lords Report Stage of the Immigration Bill 2014, Amendment (9), Lords Hansard 1st April 2014, Column 866). The Government’s position in that debate was that determination of the maximum detention period was better done by the courts under Hardial Singh principles, Lord Taylor of Holbeach for the Government saying cases are very fact dependent and a 60 day limit would give an incentive to people not to co-operate with removal.

The Shaw review of the welfare of people in immigration detention was much referred to by Karen Bradley MP and Lord Bates. Unfortunately, neither of them seems to have had an opportunity to read the conclusion of the Inquiry Report which states ‘We welcome the review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons that was announced in February 2015, shortly before this report was published. However, the narrow scope of the review, particularly the restriction that it will not look at decisions to detain, means that it will not be able to deal with the issues raised by this inquiry and others’. Lord Bates’ hints of “more progress to come” in relation to pregnant women were welcome. So were his remarks that he “expected” the Shaw review to include the decision making process of whether women victims of abuse should be detained at all. However, it only made manifest the scant grasp the Ministers seem to have their own department’s work; the terms of reference of the said review explicitly states that decision to detain is outside its scope.

Again, while it was welcome to see Karen Bradley MP seeming to suggest, for people suffering from mental health conditions, “we are taking steps to ensure that they are not detained in immigration detention”, it is entirely unclear what is meant by this statement.  The Shaw review, which once gave the Government a way of ducking the bigger issues, can no longer be used as a shield against fundamental objections to the immigration detention system raised by the Detention Inquiry Report.

We have to remember too, that Ministers have ‘form’ when it comes to downplaying the seriousness of immigration detention policy, and the Channel 4 footage of the conditions inside the detention centres, ironically, provided a perfect opportunity for that.

Karen Bradley MP and Lord Bates informed Parliament on 3rd March they were “breathing down the neck of Serco”, “holding Serco’s feet to the fire”, “watching them like a hawk”. Keith Vaz MP and Baroness Bakewell joined the debate by pointing out, despite “previous catastrophic failings” at Yarl’s Wood, last November Serco was awarded an eight year £70 million contract at Yarl’s Wood. This even though a few months ago the Lord Chancellor had sent in the Serious Fraud Office in order to discover why Serco had overcharged the taxpayer by £70 million.

Important as these issues are, and of course people in detention should never suffer abusive behaviours by the guards and these practices should come to light and be investigated further, they can also serve to distract observers’ attention away from the central question – who exactly is it that is making the decision to detain? As the daily practice of immigration detention is subcontracted to private security companies (and let’s not forget that the detention centres such as Morton Hall, The Verne, Dover and Haslar are run by HM Prison Services), it can conveniently deflect the blame that the government should shoulder; that it continues to detain far too many people for far too long.

In closing the report launch event, Sarah Teather MP, Chair of the Detention Inquiry Panel, urged all to make sure that the Inquiry Report is used as a tool for change. The Report seems indeed capable of setting a new agenda in Parliament, if used strategically through the coordinated advocacy and campaigning work by civil society organisations across the UK.