The Detention Forum which runs Unlocking Detention is a network of many groups who have been working together to challenge UK’s immigration detention policy and practice.  Jon Featonby, one of its Coordination Group members, explains why now is the time for everyone to start taking action against detention. 
There can be no better time for #Unlocked17 to have started. The next six months are crucial in terms of opportunities to push for reform of a system which, as Unlocked will show, is broken.
And the theme of #Unlocked17 could not be more appropriate. To take maximum advantage of the opportunities that are coming up, ‘Action’ is required: Action to make sure more people know about the horrors of the detention system; Action to shape public opinion; and Action to ensure those with the power to change the system know that there is a demand for reform.
One of the central reasons why the next six months is such an important period is that Stephen Shaw will be undertaking his follow-up review. Shaw, a former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, was first commissioned to carry out a review in early 2015 by Theresa May, then the Home Secretary. With a remit to look specifically – and perhaps limitedly – at the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, Shaw spent several months visiting detention centres and gathering evidence.
When Shaw’s first report was published in January 2016, it ran to some 346 pages, and contained 64 recommendations. The recommendations cover a wide range of elements of detention practice, but his conclusion was clear:
“There is too much detention; detention is not a particularly effective means of ensuring that those with no right to remain do in fact leave the UK; and many practices and processes associated with detention are in urgent need of reform.”
The report was published mid-way through the Immigration Act 2016’s progress through Parliament, and informed much of the debate on detention at the time. In the House of Lords, the Government were defeated by proposals to bring in a time limit and to end the detention of pregnant women. Although the Government were ultimately able to block these changes, it had to agree to some significant reforms – the introduction of automatic judicial oversight (albeit only after four months of detention), and a time limit of 7 days on the length of time a pregnant woman can be detained.
It also necessitated the Government committing to bringing back Stephen Shaw to carry out a follow up review “in order to assess progress against the key actions from his previous report.”
Shaw is expected to submit the outcome of his review to the Home Office early next year. This presents both an opportunity and a risk: An opportunity to highlight the fundamental reforms that are still needed and to create an environment where change can happen; a risk that if Shaw’s report is received by the Home Office in a context devoid of the wider calls for change, then Ministers will not feel under pressure to act.
This is why action is so important now and in the coming months. In particular, there is a need to highlight the key conclusion that Stephen Shaw made the first time around – that there is too much detention – and the Government’s commitment in response that they would introduce reforms that would “lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal, in turn improving the welfare of those detained.”
Nearly two years on from that commitment, according to the latest statistics around 3,000 people are still in detention at any time and nearly 30,000 people were detained over the last year. No more can the Government tinker around the edges – it’s time for meaningful reform.
Parliament is ultimately responsible for the laws that govern the use of detention in the UK, and parliament should be one of the focal points for action. This includes not just telling MPs and peers what the problems are, but also giving them some of the solutions.
Calls for a maximum time limit of 28 days have gathered momentum in recent years, and the need for a time limit is still evident. Not only would a time limit end the harmful and arbitrary system of indefinite detention, but it would also necessitate the Home Office rethinking how and why they detain people.
A time limit should be coupled with the greater use of community alternatives to detention. Community-based alternatives, that allow people to remain in their communities while their immigration cases are resolved, with case-management support that places people at the centre of the process, would enable the reduction in detention that Shaw called for and the Government have said they aspire to.
An increasing number of MPs know that detention is an issue, and that is largely down to the number of people who now contact them to say they want to see change. This not only needs to be kept up in coming months, but ramped up.
Whether it’s writing to your MP, asking to meet them in their constituency surgery, or simply tweeting at them (why not tell them to look at the #Unlocked17 hashtag? Or a do a ‘selfie’ for Unlocking Detention?), we can all do something.
You can ask your MP to write to the Home Secretary asking her to introduce a time limit on detention, ask a question in parliament, or sign up to this Early Day Motion calling for reform. There will also be some specific MP-focused actions being launched in the very near future, so watch this space.
Over the next six months, we want MPs to know more and more about why systemic reform is needed, and that another way is possible. So why delay, take action today. And tweet at us and let us know what action you have taken.