An Opportunity in the Immigration Bill to Restore Hope to People: House of Lords Committee Stage, Immigration Bill 2015/16 – Immigration Detention

Committee Stage in the House of Lords on Monday 1st February 2016 was the first opportunity Parliament had to consider the Immigration Bill and immigration detention since publication of the landmark Shaw Review.  Lord Roberts of Llandudno eloquently explained what was at stake regarding UK immigration detention: “We have responsibility not only to our own people but to the whole world community. As we deny that responsibility and act in ways that make people very much inferior and in fear, they will grow up to be people without that hope. Our opportunity in this Bill is to restore hope to people”.  Baroness Lister further drew attention to the fact that the UN Human Rights Committee has recommended that the UK introduce a time limit.

Lamentably the Government during Committee proceedings resisted saying which of the Shaw Review’s 64 Recommendations it may implement and provided little information on any internal review processes which may be occurring, resisting calls by Lord Ramsbotham to withdraw and rethink the Immigration Bill as not fit for purpose.  Lord Keen for the Government stated:

“Much of what [Stephen Shaw] says, so far as it is to be implemented, will be implemented by guidance, not by primary legislation… We have set out our ambition to see a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal, which in turn would improve the welfare of those detained…. The Government have broadly accepted the recommendations that Stephen Shaw made, and in particular will introduce a strengthened presumption that adults at risk should not be detained unless there is clear evidence of immigration risk factors…we will be … introducing a new “adult at risk” concept … adopting a wider definition than at present … with a clear presumption that people who are at risk, including pregnant women, should not be detained….The adults at risk policy will take a more holistic and dynamic approach to the assessment of vulnerability, based on the best available evidence. “

Lord Rosser summed up reaction to the Government’s position well in saying: “I am naturally disappointed by the Government’s reply that things will be done through guidelines when … it is precisely because Home Office guidelines are not adhered to that we have ended up in this situation of concern over immigration detention”.

Lord Stunell showed equal facility in putting the case against the Government’s position: “Does the Minister have a ready list of other policies that cost £160 million a year and produce no measurable benefits whatsoever to anybody? Bearing in mind that two-thirds of these people will be let out into the community eventually, the mental health costs and the costs for the children will fall on the National Health Service. What assessment have the Government made of the additional National Health Service costs?”

The weight of opposition to the Government is looking unprecedented – Lords Committee following on the back of the APPG Detention Inquiry, House of Commons debate on 10th September, and scrutiny of detention during the Immigration Bill’s passage in the House of Commons.  Parliamentarians in both Houses are joining Civil Society in demanding #Time4aTimeLimit and fundamental reform.  Even Lord Green of Deddington had to admit: “My Lords, I find myself once again in a minority of one in the Committee”.

The Lords Committee saw rafts of amendments seeking to implement key Shaw Review recommendations, including an absolute prohibition on the detention of pregnant women, as well as seeking to implement a strict 28 day time-limit, judicial oversight with automatic bail hearings and reform of the ineffective complaints system for Immigration Removal Centres.  No amendments were pushed to a vote, as is Parliamentary convention at this stage in the House of Lords.  But all non-Government amendments, at a minimum, echoed the conclusions of the Shaw Review:

“Ideally, voluntary returns options should be exhausted, and a community-based approach attempted, before detention is considered” … “there is too much detention…whether by better screening, more effective reviews, or formal time limit — it ought to be reduced”.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett reminded the Committee of the evidence on alternatives to detention: “The coalition found that alternatives to detention, ’maintain high rates of compliance and appearance, on average 90% compliance. A study collating evidence from 13 programs found compliance rates ranged between 80% and 99.9%’”.

Lord Hylton’s reference to the Detention Forum case-study concerning ‘Jacques’ provided ample reminder of the human toll of immigration detention in case anyone needed reminding: “Detained for the purposes of removal to Denmark where he had previously claimed asylum…He had a traumatic history as a child soldier and was severely affected by post-traumatic stress disorder… suffered periodic blackouts and dizziness, …exhibited erratic behaviour, at times running naked out of his room … Jacques was regularly placed in isolation, which appeared to exacerbate his confusion and paranoia”.

Lord Rosser referred to the research evidence that the sense of being in limbo in immigration detention, and the hopelessness and despair it generates, leads to deteriorating mental health.  He argued: “Having a time limit would not only bring an end to the prospect of indefinite detention but would change the culture within the system, which arises when there is no limit to the length of time someone can be detained, without any independent outside check”.

Baroness Hamwee was particularly struck by the paradox well expressed by Dr Melanie Griffiths quoted in the APPG Detention Inquiry report:

“By being detained indefinitely, without knowing how long for and with the continual possibility of both imminent release and removal, detainees worry that detention will continue forever and also that it will end in unexpected deportation the next morning. They have the simultaneous concern both that there will be sudden change and never-ending stasis.”

Baroness Lister applauded Stephen Shaw for his recommendation that there should be an absolute exclusion of pregnant women, given the evidence of the damaging impact of detention on the health of pregnant women and their unborn children.  She was alarmed, though, that the Government’s position is only that the recommendation would be “taken into account”.

As an ex Chief Inspector of Prisons and Immigration Removal Centres, Lord Ramsbotham’s remarks carry particular weight and he lent trenchant support to the recommendations of the APPG Detention Inquiry and Detention Forum key ‘asks’.  He stated: “All my amendments reflect my agreement with the Detention Forum that the Shaw review is a damning demonstration of the need for fundamental reform”.  Recommending the Immigration Bill be withdrawn, he expressed grave concerns that the proposed Home Office and Department of Health joint mental health action plan would not be fully comprehensive if to be published by April.

Equally, given the Government’s inaction on Short-term Holding Facility rules, Lord Ramsbotham had no faith in the Government’s commitment to a new approach to detention case management and new gate-keeping function.  He referred to the interview with retiring Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, published in the Guardian on Saturday 29 January, in which Nick Hardwick spoke about his anger that comparatively junior officials in the Home Office were able to lock up someone who had not been convicted of anything.

In conclusion, the remarks of Lord Alton addressed at the Government seem apt: “It seems that the cart and the horse have been confused here. Why did we bother asking Stephen Shaw to carry out his review and examine these procedures while we were steamrollering through legislation”.  Surely the Government, as encouraged by the Shaw review, now has to respond “boldly and without delay”, using the Immigration Bill to implement a 28 day time limit and other key Detention Forum demands.

By the Detention Forum team