3 September 2015

As part of #UnlocktheDebate, the Detention Forum members will be sharing their views ahead of the parliamentary debate on the detention inquiry recommendations on 10th Sep 2015.

In this piece, Ali McGinley of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) cautions MPs not to be fooled by the Government’s repeated claim that the ‘Shaw Review’ will address all the serious issues highlighted by the detention inquiry report.

Tweet your feedback to us (@DetentionForum) or with a hashtag, #UnlockTheDebate  AVID tweets at @AVIDdetention


Next week the ground-breaking recommendations of the first ever Parliamentary Inquiry into immigration detention will be debated…….in Parliament. Since the publication of the inquiry report earlier this year, the calls for substantive change in the UK’s use of detention have amplified, buoyed by the hope that the huge raft of evidence which fed the Inquiry’s conclusions cannot be ignored, as so many other reports have been. The Inquiry concluded that wholesale change was needed, arguing for community alternatives and a time limit.

To date, the response from government has been to state that the UK cannot detain indefinitely and to defer to what has become known as the ‘Shaw Review’, a review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable people. It is likely these arguments will feature heavily in next week’s debate. But is the Shaw Review able to cure all ills?

There is no doubt that, as the Inquiry concluded, the UK uses detention ‘disproportionately and inappropriately’. There is a mounting crisis of harm in detention, yet thus far the government seems reluctant to accept the findings of the cross party panel of MPs and Peers, preferring instead to fall back on their own patchwork quilt approach of remedial reviews and investigations.

The Shaw Review was announced just days before the publication of the Inquiry findings and is viewed as a pre-emptive strike to the report, as well as a response to the damning Channel 4 investigations into Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth.

While the situation facing the vulnerable in detention is at crisis point, and therefore the Shaw Review is welcomed, there is a worrying tendency on the part of government to both pre-empt and over-estimate the impact that this review will be able to have.

The terms of reference handed to Sir Stephen and his team of Home Office secondees does not permit them to consider the decision to detain. As such the review’s premise is clear: the principle of detention is ‘not in question’, and it will only be able to deal with issues that arise once someone is already in detention. It will not be able to address the Inquiry’s critical findings of a disconnect between the official guidance on detention (which states that detention should be used sparingly and for the shortest period necessary) and the current practice of holding 30,000 people a year, with many instances of prolonged and unlawful detention. This is even acknowledged in the concluding remarks of the Inquiry Report:

“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”

Worryingly, this also means that the review will bypass the burning question at the heart of any consideration of the welfare needs of vulnerable people – why are they in detention in the first place? Does the UK really need to lock up pregnant women, those who have mental health needs, or people who have a disability? There is a real risk therefore that the Shaw Review will fall into what the Inquiry calls ‘tinkering’, looking at the remedial aspects of the system, and leaving the root causes of the problem unaddressed. There may be dangerous consequences should this opportunity be missed.

Similar attempts to ameliorate concerns about the treatment of vulnerable people in detention have been made in the past, with limited impact.

In response to a series of breaches of the Article 3 rights of immigration detainees with serious mental health needs, the Home Office commissioned the Tavistock Institute to carry out the Review of Mental Health Issues in Immigration Removal Centres in 2013. Tavistock reported in 2014 but their conclusions were not published until 2015, and we’ve yet to see any policy change as a result of their findings.

The Serco-commissioned review of Yarl’s Wood, a response to the findings of the Channel 4 expose, is a similar exercise, currently being undertaken by Kate Lampard CBE. Her remit is restricted to the elements of managing the centre which falls under Serco’s remit; as such she won’t be able to address the more complex policy questions around why so many vulnerable women are held in detention, many of whom have experienced sexual violence. Again, this review is welcomed: the women at Yarl’s Wood have been sidelined for too long. But it is unfortunately yet another example of a piecemeal approach which ignores the broader call for a time limit or the use of community alternatives.

There is a bigger question here. For many of us, the launch of the Parliamentary Inquiry report was a bit of a watershed moment. The systemic problems that we see every day were set out in black and white by a Cross Party Panel of MPs and Peers with considerable expertise, and their conclusions were clear: the problems that beset the UK detention system could be resolved simply by detaining fewer people.

Why is the government so reluctant to engage on the recommendations made by parliamentarians, instead diverting resources into piecemeal reviews of existing policies and systems?

Sadly, as we await their response, the crisis mounts: in the last month we’ve seen HMIP conclude that there is ‘too much violence’ at the Verne and that Yarl’s Wood is ‘a place of national concern’ that is ‘not meeting the needs of vulnerable women’. A few weeks ago there were media reports that a young man tragically took his own life at the Verne, and in the same month Catherine West MP was denied access to Yarl’s Wood, feeding rather than alleviating concerns.

It is time for the government to acknowledge that the problems in UK detention will take more than a sticking plaster to solve.