In this guest blog, originally published by Scottish Detainee Visitors, SDV director, Kate Alexander, takes a look at the follow up to 2016’s Shaw Review and presents an overview of its findings.

Last week the Government finally published Sir Stephen Shaw’s follow up to his 2016 review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. Like its predecessor, the report is long, coming in at well over 200 pages (including appendices) and is a comprehensive ‘marking of the government’s homework’ with respect to its progress in implementing the recommendations in the earlier review. But, like the earlier review, Shaw has interpreted his brief widely and has commented and made recommendations on a wide range of issues.

Time for a Time Limit?

Of crucial importance to advocates for detention reform is the question of a time limit. The UK remains the only country in Europe without a time limit and, since the publication of 2015’s Detention Inquiry, the calls to end indefinite detention have grown louder, with a diverse range of organisations lending support. Sir Stephen notes in his foreword that he does not address a time limit directly, but comments that while the average length of detention has decreased since 2015 and the overall number of people detained has fallen, the numbers detained for over six months has actually increased. He calls the time many people spend in detention ‘deeply troubling’.

The review notes that the majority of organisations making representations to him called for a time limit of 28 days and suggests that this call ‘has been articulated more as a slogan than as a fully developed policy proposal’. SDV disagrees with this analysis and argues that many of the issues the rest of the report addresses would be improved by the imposition of a time limit and that there is substantial evidence that this is the case.

The need for a strategic plan for detention

In repeating his call for the Home Office to develop a strategic plan for the type and scale of the immigration detention estate it thinks is necessary, Sir Stephen refers to the problematic location and design of the detention estate. He makes specific reference to Dungavel and argues that ‘it remains an incongruous part of the estate’. He suggests that the shelving of plans to close Dungavel and open a Short Term Holding Facility at Glasgow Airport has resulted in the paradoxical consequence that ‘there will continue to be significantly more detention in Scotland than would otherwise have been the case’.

We think Sir Stephen misses an important point here. Without a significant change in Home Office policy in other areas, the closure of Dungavel would not have resulted in fewer people in Scotland being detained, or living in fear of detention. It would simply have meant they would have been detained elsewhere. The most effective way of reducing detention in Scotland, and in the rest of the UK, would be to introduce a time limit and develop a range of community based alternatives.

Detention does not do what the Home Office says it does

In welcoming the overall reduction in both the number of people detained and the average length of detention since his last review, Sir Stephen draws attention to the fact that despite this, more than 50 per cent of people leaving detention are released back into the community and argues that ‘very frequently, detention is not fulfilling its stated aims’. This is a point repeatedly made by ourselves and others advocating for reform. He says: ‘these figures continue to call into question the extent to which the current use of detention is cost effective or necessary.’ We agree.

Adults at Risk policy has failed to prevent the detention of vulnerable people

A key recommendation from the first review was the development of a new system for managing vulnerable people in detention. In response, the Government introduced the Adults at Risk policy. The review echoes the concern of a number of organisations that the new policy has not had the effect of reducing the number of vulnerable people who are detained and recommends that it should be amended to address these concerns. In making these recommendations, the review suggests that the Home Office should consider using the UNHCR vulnerability screening tool, as it would strengthen the mechanisms for identifying vulnerability before detention.

Failures in healthcare

The report gives considerable attention to healthcare and, while it notes that improvements have been made since the earlier review, it is clear that there are still significant issues to address. The opening paragraph of the chapter dealing with healthcare demonstrates Sir Stephen’s understanding of its crucial importance and the reasons why people in detention experience ill health:

‘Nothing is more central to the detainee experience than healthcare. Whether this is because of pre-existing conditions that have not been treated, or detention exacerbating ill-health, or simple boredom or other reason, is not to the point. The extent to which detainees use the healthcare facilities is extraordinarily high by the standards of the community at large.’

In our view, Sir Stephen’s remarks here point strongly to the need for a time limit. There is strong evidence, which he acknowledges throughout the review, that detention affects mental and physical health. The indefinite nature of detention in the UK further exacerbates this and is something we witness every week in Dungavel.

The evidence in the report about healthcare at Dungavel (and at other centres) is shocking. It notes Dungavel staff concerns about the quality of incoming patient notes, especially from Scottish prisons, GPs’ concerns that clinical views were not taken seriously by Home Office, and that lack of escorting led to many missed external appointments.

The lack of cleanliness of healthcare facilities was a concern in a number of centres and one room in Dungavel was so dirty it would have been closed in the community. The waiting areas were also inadequate and arrangements for dispensing medication lacked privacy. The report is also scathing about the Secure Unit at Dungavel, which ‘was bleak and excessively bare’ and ‘wholly unsuitable for accommodating those suffering from mental health conditions’.

The report notes that improvements to healthcare were in hand at a number of centres, including Dungavel, but makes a number of recommendations for further improvements including the development of an action plan to address the shortcomings he identified in the review.

The need to improve case-working

Shaw has significant criticisms of Home Office case work for people in detention and argues that ‘detention too often appears to be the default decision’. He makes a number of recommendations to improve case working including better data management, improving the internal oversight of detention decisions, and introducing independent oversight of cases of detention over six months. He also repeats his view that case workers should meet people in detention face to face and should visit detention centres as part of their training. It is remarkable that these are not already routine – how can case workers understand the impact of their decisions without these experiences?

In discussing case working, Sir Stephen gives very welcome consideration to the position of foreign national ex-offenders in detention. This group makes up around a third of the detention population and experiences high rates of long term detention. He expresses concern they do not have access to the automatic bail hearing provisions of the 2016 Immigration Act, arguing: ‘Whatever their past crimes, they surely have an equal right to independent consideration of the detention decision.’

A very welcome and humane recommendation is that the Home Office should not routinely seek to deport foreign national ex-offenders who were born in the UK or who were brought up here from an early age. This affects a number of people who we have visited in detention and who were terrified at the prospect of being sent to a country they had never been to or had left in their infancy.

Alternatives to detention

The review gives extensive and welcome consideration to alternatives to detention and recommends the establishment of an alternative to detention project for vulnerable people. Again, it gives particular consideration to the situation of foreign national ex-offenders. It praises Detention Action’s Community Support Project and recommends its expansion. Importantly, it recognises that Government policy to foster the ‘compliant environment’ can set people up to fail and argues that released foreign national ex-offenders should be enabled to support themselves rather than rely on Section 4 support.

Safer detention and improving staff culture

The report notes that 12 people have died in or shortly after detention since the last review and recommends that the Government reviews whether regular figures on deaths in detention should be released. It also recommends that the Home Office commissions research into deaths in detention, near misses and incidents of serious self harm, and that they should devise a strategy for reducing deaths in detention. While generally praising Asessment, Care in Detention and Teamwork, the system designed to assist in the prevention of suicide and self harm, the review suggests that it can sometimes be used too readily, and should be more closely aligned with the Adults and Risk policy.

Shaw also considers oversight and staff culture, particularly in the light of abuse revelations at Brook House, and concludes that the Home Office should monitor more closely the policies, procedures and practices of its contractors in order to better uncover poor behaviour.

Where does this leave us?

The new Shaw Review presents a detailed account of Home Office detention policy and procedures and conditions in detention centres and makes 44 recommendations for improvements. It is described as an assessment of government progress in implementing the recommendations of the previous report, but in fact goes much further. The extent to which the report considers the situation of foreign national ex-offenders, who are most likely to be subject to long term detention, is particularly striking, as is its support for the extension of community-based alternatives to detention for this group, and others.

It is frustrating, therefore, that the review does not explicitly recommend a time limit on detention. Sir Stephen felt free to comment on a range of issues outwith the narrow remit of reporting on progress since the last review, but remains coy on this issue.

Nevertheless, the Home Secretary is clearly feeling the pressure. In presenting the report to Parliament last Tuesday, Sajid Javid committed to investigate how time limits work in other countries and to review the question of time limits after the investigation is complete. This is welcome but, we would argue, unnecessary. The 2015 Detention Inquiry presented a compelling case for the introduction of a time limit of 28 days, based on an analysis of international best practice. The case is already made. It’s time for a time limit.