By Jon Featonby, parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council and parliamentary lead for the Detention Forum.

As Advent began last year, I was in the Houses of Parliament as part of Sanctuary in Parliament II. On that same day, MPs were debating what is now the Immigration Act 2016. In particular, they were debating an amendment that was aimed at introducing a time limit on how long someone can be detained for immigration purpose.

The response from the Minister speaking for the Government that day was that those MPs who supported that amendment — and those of us who were calling for detention reform elsewhere in Parliament — needed to wait for Stephen Shaw’s review into the welfare of people in detention to be published.

Stephen Shaw’s review was indeed published on 14 January this year. In it, Shaw made 64 recommendations, many more radical than had been expected, in a report that runs to some 349 pages. On the day it was published, the then Immigration Minister James Brokenshire set out the Government’s response in a written statement.

That response ran to about one and a half sides of A4, so it hardly dealt in depth with all the issues raised by Shaw. But what it did do at least was set out a general idea of what the Government’s intentions were. These intentions included introducing a broader definition of those at risk of harm within detention, carrying out an assessment of the mental health needs of people in detention, and introducing a new system of case management for carrying out case reviews.

The expectation, the Minister said, was that these changes would “lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal”. He added that the Government would also publish their plans for the “future shape and size of the detention estate.”

As we come towards the end of 2016, how far have those expectations been met?

What is true is that fewer people are being detained. In the last three months of 2015, 7702 people were detained. Between July and September 2016, this decreased a little, down to 7196 people. But, shockingly, what the Home Office’s own statistics show is that despite the reduction in the number of people entering detention, those who are in detention are being held for longer. At the end of December 2015, the month before the Shaw Review was published, 453 people who were being detained had been there for longer than 4 months. Nine months later, that number was 553.
Not only are people being detained for longer, but the impact of that is that despite fewer people entering detention, the number of people detained at any one time is actually higher than it was. On December 31 2015, 2,607 people were being detained. By the end of September 2016, this had jumped to just below 3,000.

Additionally, despite the Home Office’s continued instance that detention is used “where it is necessary for the purposes of removal”, fewer than half of those people who left detention in the last three months for which we have the statistics did so because they were removed. For the majority, after they left detention they returned to their communities. Why were they ever locked up then? you may well ask. Why indeed.

What reforms that have been introduced have been flawed: the new “Adults at Risk” policy uses a definition of torture so narrow it excludes acts perpetrated by groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State; the Government introduced a new time limit on the detention of pregnant women but then refused to issue information about how many pregnant women were still being detained; and the provision in the Immigration Act 2016 that would provide automatic bail hearings after four months of being detained is yet to be enacted.

So returning to the expectation that “a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal”, so far the Government are coming up short. What about those plans for the future of the detention estate?

Well, since the Shaw Review was published there have been announced closures of Dover IRC and Cedars detention centre, as well as the proposal to close Dungavel IRC in Scotland. But there is not an overarching strategy.
Back in January, the Government said they would publish their plans as part of the Immigration Enforcement Business plan for 2016/17. With four months to go of 2016/17, there is still no sight of that plan. In September, the new Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill told the Home Affairs Select Committee, that the strategy was “in front of Ministers”. At the end of November, the line is now that it will be published “in due course”.

An increase in the number of people in detention; no reduction in the length of people are being detained for; no plan for the future of the detention estate. That, so far, is the outcome of the Government’s response to Shaw’s review.

For those of you who have been following Unlocking Detention this year, you will know all too well the harm detention inflicts not just on individuals, but on their families and communities as well. The Government cannot wait to follow through on their commitments – they need to act now.

That is why I encourage you to write to your MP today – you can find some suggested text here – and ask them to call on the Home Secretary to take urgent steps. And if you can, go along to your MP’s surgery (you can usually find details of them on their website) and talk to them about why that Government has to act and ask them to raise the issue with the Home Secretary. So stop reading this, and go and tell your MP what they need to do!

Take action

  • write to your MP.  You can find out who your MP is here.  You can use your own words, or you may find the suggested text here helpful.
  • make an appointment to meet your MP at their surgery and ask him/her to take action (if you feel shy about this or need help, you can tweet at us @DetentionForum and we will do our best to support you)
  • you can also tweet your MP with your request. Find out if your MP is on Twitter here.

Let us know if you hear back! Tweet @detentionforum or email if you’re not on Twitter.