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The Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill is currently on its way through Parliament, despite the chaos going on around it. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the House of Commons Committee Stage, which will involve several days of discussion about various aspects of the Bill, ending on 7 March.

(If you’d like to find out more about the passage of a bill through Parliament, there’s a helpful guide here. We’ve also blogged recently about why immigration bills are worth caring about if you’re interested in seeing changes to the UK’s detention policy and practice.)

Given the very narrow scope of this Bill – it relates specifically to rights to free movement of EEA nationals in the UK and other immigration rules governed by EU law – there has been some debate about whether it can be interpreted broadly enough to provide a vehicle for a time limit on immigration detention or not.

However, cross-party concern about the trauma of indefinite detention was clearly evident during the Bill’s second reading at the end of January. In fact, detention dominated the debate. Conservative, DUP, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP and Green MPs all stood up to argue for a time limit on detention, forcing Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes to address an issue they had clearly hoped to sidestep.

Conservative MPs David Davis and Andrew Mitchell – who have both publicly voiced their support for an amendment placing a time limit on detention, alongside Harriet Harman and others – were the first to raise the issue, calling it a ‘national shame’. They were joined by fellow Conservative MPs Steve Double and John Hayes, and Shadow DUP Spokesperson on Home Affairs, Gavin Robinson.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott admitted Labour’s role in introducing the current immigration detention system but reiterated Labour’s current pledge to end indefinite detention.

“I was a Member of Parliament when immigration detention as we now know it was introduced. When some of us queried the lack of due process surrounding it, we were told not to concern ourselves because people would be detained for only short periods immediately prior to being deported. Now we have a monstrous system where people are held in administrative detention for a year or more. Ministers insist that detention is not indefinite, but if someone is in a detention centre, cut off from their friends and family, with no idea when they will be released, it certainly feels like indefinite detention to them.

It has long been my view that we should end indefinite detention, and the Labour party’s commitment to ending it was set out clearly in the 2017 manifesto. I welcome the fact that Members on both sides of the House are coming round to that point of view. One can only hope that the Bill is amended along those lines in Committee.”

The SNP’s Shadow Immigration Spokesperson, Stuart McDonald, echoed Abbott’s concern at the omission of detention from the Bill.

“We have the disgraceful situation of being alone in Europe in insisting that indefinite detention is perfectly okay simply for immigration purposes. Report after report flags up the terrible effect it has on detainees, yet there is nothing in this Bill to fix it.”

Labour MP Harriet Harman, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights – which has just published the findings of its inquiry into immigration detention – devoted much of her time to highlighting the flaws in the UK’s immigration detention system. She raised particular concerns about two issues: first, the Home Office’s current free reign in deciding who to detain and when.

“…if the Home Office suspects a person of being in breach of our immigration laws, there is a complete absence of independence in the decision making. A civil servant—nameless, faceless and behind closed doors—just ticks a box to detain them. The first that person will know about it is when someone bangs on their door in the early hours of the morning to bundle them into an immigration enforcement van and take them to a detention centre.

With no independence in the decision making, and with no scrutiny or accountability, mistakes are inevitable. Those we get to hear about are probably only the tip of the iceberg, but we do know that £21 million was paid out by the Home Office in just five years to compensate for wrongful detention, and terrible mistakes are certainly what happened in the Windrush cases.”

Second, the issue of indefinite administrative detention.

“Another deplorable aspect of our immigration system, to which EU citizens are now to be subject under this Bill, is that there is no time limit on detention. A person is taken from their home or workplace, and they have no idea whether they will be in the detention centre for a day, a month or a year. Evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights identified the indefinite nature of such detention as one of its cruellest aspects.

The criminal justice system imposes time limits at every stage, from first bringing a defendant before a magistrate to the sentence that sets out their time in prison, but the Home Office can hold a person in immigration detention indefinitely. The Joint Committee on Human Rights agrees with the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield and for Haltemprice and Howden, Mr Grieve and my right hon. Friends the Members for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) that there should be a time limit of 28 days on immigration detention, and the Joint Committee will table an amendment to the Bill so that if a detainee is not deported or released by then, they should be brought before a judge where the Home Office can apply for just a further 28 days. We hope the Government will accept an amendment on detention that I believe has widespread support in the House, including from the SNP—we have heard from Stuart C. McDonald, and Joanna Cherry is a leading member of our Joint Committee—and the Lib Dems, and I know the DUP has long complained about indefinite detention.”

Other Labour MPs including Shadow Immigration Minister Afzal KhanAlex SobelCatherine WestGeraint DaviesKate GreenPaul SweeneyPreet Kaur Gill, and Thangam Debbonaire echoed these concerns, calling on the government to end indefinite administrative detention.

Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron called for a time limit on detention, as did the Liberal Democrat’s Spokesperson on Home Affairs, Edward Davey.

“The Government’s Bill could also ensure that we do not lock people up indefinitely, as has already been mentioned by one or two right hon. and hon. Members. At the moment, immigrants can be detained with no idea of when they might be removed or released. This is unacceptable, unjust and un-British. At the very least, let us set a 28-day deadline on how long someone can be detained.”

Green MP Caroline Lucas called on the government to go further.

“When I finally got into Yarl’s Wood, what came over to me from my conversations with the women I met is the mental torture, the arbitrariness, of not knowing why they had been taken. Although I respect that she [Harriet Harman] is trying to get a majority for a particular timeframe, which is why she has chosen the 28 days, does she agree that, if we were not trying to make that compromise, there is an argument for ending indefinite detention altogether, without any timeframe?”

Harriet Harman concludes by emphasising the groundswell of cross-party support for a time limit on immigration detention, which we hope will carry through to subsequent stages of the Bill.

“This is not a party issue. It seems to be the Home Office versus everybody else. The Labour Government should have ended the scandal of indefinite detention when we were in office, but we did not, and I am now happy to apologise for that—it is something we should have done.”