Stephen Shaw’s follow up review on the UK’s immigration detention system – Assessment of government progress in implementing the report on the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons – was published on 24 July 2018. This was intended as a review of the progress achieved (or not) by the Home Office since Shaw’s initial review published in 2016. It includes 44 recommendations addressing not only vulnerability in detention but also overarching concerns around the scale and purpose of detention, Home Office decision-making and case progression, and the expansion of community-based alternatives to detention.

While Shaw’s report is worth a read, the context in which it has been published is perhaps even more interesting. Despite its publication at the eleventh hour before summer recess, statements made by the Home Secretary and a wide range of parliamentarians highlighted key priorities for detention reform, which have in turn been amplified in media coverage and migration sector responses.

Parliamentary response

The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made an oral statement following the report’s release (restated in a later press release). He announced new measures including:

  • Initiating an internal review on time limits on immigration detention in other countries. The Home Secretary clarified that this will involve ‘looking at the time limit for detentions full stop, regardless of who is in detention’, indicating an awareness of the need for a time limit for all.
  • Introducing a new community-based alternative to detention pilot for women who would otherwise be detained in Yarl’s Wood IRC. The Home Secretary explained that ‘there should be more alternatives to detention so that people can be held in the community, rather than in a detention centre, while their cases are being looked at’.
  • Improving the Adults at Risk policy, including Rule 35 reports, and commissioning the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration to report annually on its effectiveness.
  • Piloting a change to the existing time period for automatic bail referrals from 4 months to 2 months.
  • Emphasising ‘dignity in detention’, including limiting the number of people per room and introducing new toilet and Skype facilities.
  • Introducing more staff, more training and more data on immigration detention.

In response, a number of MPs from all major parties asked for more detail on the alternatives to detention pilot announced by the Home Office, and called for further debate and reform of the immigration detention system, including a time limit on detention and additional protections for people vulnerable to harm in detention.

“There is repeated evidence that the indefinite nature of detention is not only traumatising for those who are being held, but means that there is no pressure on the Home Office and immigration system to make the swift decisions that we need, so I join the shadow Home Secretary in urging him, as speedily as possible, to bring an end to indefinite detention.”

Yvette Cooper MP, Labour, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee

Similar concerns were raised by peers in the House of Lords, addressing the systemic factors underpinning the use and misuse of immigration detention.

“[Shaw asked] whether we will move to a position where, rather than just using a competency-based approach, we could adopt a values-based one when dealing with vulnerable people. That would help to solve the problems in a much more systematic way than just talking about individual programmes or training.”

Lord Scriven, Liberal Democrat

Such dynamic cross-party engagement on fundamental priorities for detention reform just hours before summer recess provides a good indication of the growing pressure on the Home Office to follow through on its commitment to ending its reliance on indefinite detention.

Media coverage

Media coverage in The GuardianThe Independent and Politics Home highlights the Home Secretary’s commitments to reviewing time limits on detention and implementing alternatives to detention pilots, as well as documenting evidence of the government’s continued failure to protect those at risk of harm in detention.

Those with lived experience of immigration detention hailed Shaw’s follow-up review and offered a powerful reminder of the urgency of detention reform.

“Indefinite detention is disgraceful. There needs to be a time limit on how long the Home Office can keep people locked up because the not-knowing is destroying people’s minds.”

Gabby, writing in The Independent

Civil society response

Whether cautiously optimistic or highly critical, civil society responses to Shaw’s progress review highlight the fact that the Home Office has failed to make significant steps towards achieving the key recommendation of his initial review: to ensure that immigration detention is used sparingly and effectively. As Shaw himself makes clear, the number of people detained for longer than 6 months has in fact increased since his first review, and over half of all people detained are eventually released back into the community. In response, organisations like AVID point out that a time limit on detention would provide a straightforward way of addressing these concerns.

“Fundamentally, this isn’t a debate about conditions. This is a debate about liberty. As the 2015 cross-party inquiry into immigration detention remarked, ‘little will change by tinkering with the pastoral care or improving the facilities.’ We could detain people in palaces but we would still be holding them without a time limit.”


Scottish Detainee Visitors’ response provides a succinct overview of Shaw’s findings, while AVID sets out a helpful summary of the Home Secretary’s statement and MPs’ questions.

At the Detention Forum, like Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and René Cassin, we have cautiously welcomed moves towards alternatives to detention and a time limit, while recognising that much more needs to be done.

Detention Action offers further insight into its work on the community-based alternative to detention for young men with previous convictions praised by Shaw in his review.

Contributions from BID and No Walls highlight the recommendations in Shaw’s initial review which have still not been achieved, including adequate protections for people at risk of harm in detention or detained in prisons, and a guarantee that detention is used only as a last resort prior to removal.

The Refugee Council and Freedom from Torture echo calls for effective protections against the detention of vulnerable people, while Amnesty provides a timely reminder of the need to end indefinite detention.

What next?

Following prompting from Thangam Debbonaire MP and David Linden MP, the Home Secretary has promised to look into a full debate on the Shaw review following summer recess, and to read the report of the 2015 Detention Inquiry co-facilitated by the APPGs on Refugees and Migration.

No doubt these steps will prove helpful in informing the government’s review of time limits and implementation of alternatives to detention pilots. Depending on timing, so too may the ongoing inquiries into immigration detention hosted by the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights (submissions close 7 September). Petitions launched by LibertyAmnesty and others indicate widespread public support for detention reform, as do grassroots movements like These Walls Must Fall.

Maintaining this momentum is crucial, particularly in the lead-up to the next Immigration Bill. Mishka, from the Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experiences campaigning for detention reform, urges ‘all fellow advocates and campaigners to maintain focus and energy and use this Shaw Review 2 in an effective manner in the fight against indefinite detention and in calling for radical detention reform’.

“Stephen Shaw has highlighted the gap between Home Office policies and practice. Therefore, it would be wise to remain watchful on whether the promises made by the Home Secretary become a reality, or if they are merely a set of empty words.”

Mishka, Freed Voices, writing in No Walls