Since 6 January, a number of immigration detainees in the detainee centre at HMP Rochester have been refusing regular prison food. Since that date, the number of those involved in the protest has fluctuated considerably. According to the prison, as of today, the number of those involved is 17, although that figure is subject to constant change.
Since Monday 27 January, a small number of the protesters have claimed to be refusing fluids. The most recent information indicates that there are currently six who are doing so. They are being held in the prison's health care wing.
Various arguments are advanced on behalf of the protesters. It is argued that asylum seekers who have committed no criminal offence should not be held in detention. It is also argued that immigration detainees should not be held in a Prison Service establishment. A third argument is that adequate safeguards do not exist in relation to the use of detention. In particular, it is claimed that detainees do not have adequate access to the legal system. Let me take those arguments in turn.
As the Government have repeatedly made clear, detention is used only sparingly and only for those who it is believed would otherwise abscond. At any one time, only about 1 per cent. of those with asylum applications outstanding will be held in detention. It is inescapable, however, that if we are to enforce the immigration laws effectively, some carefully targeted use of detention must be made. More than 80 per cent. of successfully effected removals have involved detention at some stage. If we are to remove failed asylum seekers, we cannot dispense with the targeted use of detention. Indeed, the experience of other comparable countries is the same. We give detainees full reasons for their detention. Initially, that is done orally, and, at regular intervals subsequently, it is done in writing. Both are done in a language that they understand.
It is a regrettable fact that some failed asylum seekers will not comply with their conditions of temporary admission unless we detain them. There is wide-scale abuse of our procedures, and the potential for absconding is real. It would increase significantly if there were no use of detention.
Secondly, the use of prison establishments to provide some of the detention spaces is also unavoidable, in current circumstances. A small number of detainees simply present control or security problems that are so severe that there can be no question whatever of holding them elsewhere.
Additionally, the Prison Service has for many years provided a significant number of detention spaces for general detainees. It currently provides about half the detention estate for all immigration detainees, but that percentage has fallen in recent years with the opening of the new immigration detention centres at Campsfield house in Oxfordshire and Tinsley house near Gatwick. Furthermore, a policy of greater concentration of immigration detainees in the Prison Service has successfully been implemented, with the bulk of such places now being provided by two establishments, Rochester and Haslar. Such accommodation is, of course, discrete from the rest of the prison.
Those in detention are not all there because they were detained at the port where they innocently asked for asylum. Thirty-four per cent. are illegal entrants, a small percentage are convicted criminals awaiting deportation, and others who absconded following an adverse decision will have had to be detained on detection. For example, among those involved in the fluids protests is one who has served a sentence of imprisonment for two convictions of indecent assault against children, was subsequently removed from the United Kingdom and then re-entered unlawfully. Another was detained by the police when found to be attempting further immigration deception. Nor is it so that many asylum seekers are held for inordinate periods. Of those involved in the fluids protests, half were detained either this month or last month.
Every effort is made to provide good facilities for immigration detainees. At Rochester, there are good physical education and library facilities, access to educational classes and the opportunity to pursue training courses. The greatest possible separation is maintained between immigration detainees and others who are held at Rochester. Detainees are held under remand conditions. They are, for example, allowed a two-hour visit each day from Monday to Saturday and all their varying dietary requirements are catered for. There is a well-equipped health care wing at Rochester, and detainees have access to medical care comparable to that which would be provided by a general practitioner to a member of the public.
On the question of safeguards, detention decisions, which are never taken lightly anyway, are reviewed at very frequent intervals and at senior levels in the immigration service. Moreover, detainees may in most circumstances seek bail or challenge their detention in the courts. Posters are displayed in detention centres giving details of sources of legal advice, and many detainees benefit from legal aid or from the services of statutorily funded organisations such as the Refugee Legal Centre or the Immigration Advisory Service.
The Government entirely understand the sensitivity that surrounds the detention of a small number of asylum seekers and other immigration cases. Detainees are always given priority in the immigration and nationality department, and a range of safeguards, including, of course, appeal to an independent adjudicator, are in place. Our objective is that, where detention is necessary, it should be for as short a period as possible, but arbitrary time limits would be incompatible with the fact that the need for detention to be extended often arises from circumstances beyond our control, such as attempts to stave off removal or, in dealing with a few countries, difficulties in securing documentation for a removable person.
However difficult some cases may be, there is no good reason for detainees to be refusing either food or fluids. It is clearly in their best interests to stop the activity now. I urge them to do so, and every effort is being made to persuade them to do so. I pay tribute to the prison staff, especially the medical staff who are looking after the detainees, and the immigration officers who visit the prison regularly with information and help.
We shall continue to monitor the situation on a very frequent basis, but those concerned must realise that only one course is in their best interests: for them to join the others at Rochester who have already ended their protest.
Will the Minister explain why, if all immigration detainees are given statements in writing in their mother tongue, I received the following written answer from her colleague the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), two days ago? It said:
This is done orally, in a language which the person understands, through an interpreter if necessary. The Government see no justification for providing written reasons."—[Official Report, 27 January 1997; Vol. 289, c. 1.]
What the Minister has said today is the exact opposite of what I was told only two days ago.
Could not the Minister have some sense of humanity and understanding of the outrage and grievance felt by people when they come to this country to seek asylum, within the terms of the 1951 Geneva convention, to find themselves banged up in prisons alongside criminals and treated as criminals? Is she not aware that 891 people are at present in custody in detention centres and prisons at a total annual cost of £20 million? They have an extremely serious grievance. This is not the first protest that has taken place, and I suspect that it will not be the last.
Instead of going on about the prison conditions, of which she paints a rosy picture, why does not the Minister begin to understand the sense of outrage felt by people who have been charged with nothing and have committed no crime, but have been put in prison and given no right of direct access to the courts? That is the flaw in the British legal system.
Is the Minister aware that one of those who is refusing fluids, Ejike Emeneki, is in a critical condition? I understand that he is in the process of being transferred to Medway hospital for treatment that may involve rehydration. Does she not understand that those who undertake a hunger and fluid strike protest do so not as some light lark, but because they are deeply upset and angry and feel that it is the only way to get her and her Government to take their grievances seriously?
Why do not we do as other European countries do, and end the practice of the routine imprisonment of asylum seekers? We would save ourselves a lot of money and give ourselves some credit in the world. At the moment, our reputation on human rights is extremely poor, because people see that we routinely imprison those who have fled from fear and oppression in other countries. Does the Minister accept that her attitude to the issue is a complete disgrace?
I am obliged to say that I think that the hon. Gentleman's attitude is a complete disgrace. He talks about our routinely imprisoning asylum seekers. How can it be described as a routine action, when out of 44,000 applicants only 750 have been detained? Indeed, we would not wish to detain people: it is very much in their interests and in ours if we do not have to do so. However, there are some cases, such as those that I have described, in which it is necessary.
The hon. Gentleman paints a completely false picture. It is not true that the majority of people whom we detain have come over here innocently declaring their intentions at the port of entry. About one third—34 per cent.—are illegal entrants; others have overstayed; others are awaiting deportation following court convictions; and others have been picked up by the police for minor crime, but will not be prosecuted because we have decided to go for removal instead. All those people are quite rightly detained.
It is also true that there will be a percentage of detainees who have not been convicted of any crime in this country. That is because of the judgments that we make on their application and on the likelihood of their standing by our rules. Many of those detained have endeavoured to abscond, having already had their applications refused.
I repeat that the rules are that initially the people whom we have decided to detain must be given the reasons orally; and that thereafter it should be done monthly, in writing. That is my clear advice, from the most senior levels of the immigration service.
Has the percentage of people detained among asylum seekers—or alleged asylum seekers—declined since our introduction of the new rules last year? It is my recollection that it was said at that time that it was less than 2 per cent.; can my hon. Friend confirm that it is now about 1 per cent.? Did any of the six who are so tragically refusing liquid refreshment arrive in this country for a reason other than seeking asylum?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who represents the constituency in which the events are taking place. The percentage of people detained fluctuates between 1 per cent. and 1·5 per cent. It does not go much higher than that, for the simple reason that, quite apart from the fact that we do not wish to do so, we do not have the facilities to detain on any large scale: we have only about 900 detention places in our system. However, as a result of our putting in 150 extra case workers, we have already significantly reduced the backlog. There has been a reduction of about 10,000 in the past 12 months or so, so there has been a considerable improvement.
My hon. Friend then asked me whether the six people who are refusing fluids, who had claimed asylum, had entered for other reasons. I am sure that she will be aware that, unless people put their details into the public domain, I do not do so. Nevertheless, I have already said that one of them had previously served a prison sentence, had been removed from this country and had then re-entered unlawfully. He then claimed asylum and has appealed against refusal of that. The other to whom I referred was picked up by the police when he was found to be attempting a further immigration deception. His claim for asylum had already been refused, but he had been granted temporary admission pending his appeal. When the further abuse took place, the temporary admission was cancelled and he was instead detained.
Without going into the considerable detail that I have, it would appear that all the remaining three have at some stage claimed asylum, but were not able to give satisfactory documentary evidence. Other reasons that I will not yet put into the public domain, although two cases involved third countries, have made us see fit to detain them.
Does the Minister recall that, when the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 was going through the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who at that time was responsible for these matters, predicted that the legislation would reduce the waiting time for applications to be heard to three months? Does she acknowledge that the latest figures show that, on average, it is almost 12 months before a decision is reached and that in the past 12 months not only the number of appeals but the time taken to deal with them has increased? Does she further acknowledge that those statistics demonstrate the tension that exists among the many asylum seekers in Britain, and that that is the underlying cause of the critical situation at Rochester?
Does the Minister accept that there is a high risk of events such as we have seen at Rochester recurring, because 60,000 people still await a decision on their application for asylum, and more than 800 of them are languishing in a detention centre or prison? Does she acknowledge the urgent need for new procedures to tackle the underlying cause of delay and to deal with circumstances such as those at Rochester, where people are so desperate that they are prepared to risk their lives, because they cannot get a decision from the Government on when their application will be heard and in what circumstances?
The hon. Gentleman calls on the Government to introduce new procedures. We have spent a considerable part of this Session introducing new procedures, which he and his hon. Friends have voted against. So he is clearly not remotely interested in procedures that will speed up the system. The backlog of enforcement appeals stands at some 13,000, but the hon. Gentleman's deduction that the protest in Rochester is the result of delays is not defensible on the basis of the information that we have before us.
For example, of the 750 people who were in detention last month, which is the latest snapshot figure I have, the overwhelming majority had been there for less than six months and only 30 had been there in excess of 12 months, all of whom had highly complicated cases. The House heard me say that, of the six people who claim to be refusing fluids, half were initially detained either this month or last month. So I do not feel that delays are the actual cause of frustration. Indeed, of those detained, some 75 to 80 per cent. have already had a decision.
I remind the House that private notice questions deal with a specific issue, and I ask the many hon. Members who are standing to make their questions to the point and to ask them very briskly.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that there is a difference between the regime in Campsfield house and that in Rochester? What we really need is not prisons, but secure hostels to detain people who need detention. The Prison Service is very uncomfortable with that role and, if we are looking for additional places for people such as those being discussed, we would do better to build secure hostels than to keep them locked up in prison.
I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks about preferring detention in special centres to detention in discrete parts of prison. That is why we have opened Campsfield house and Tinsley house and why the percentage of those detained in our prison system has declined. It is a shared objective. Meanwhile, if we believe that people should be detained and if that view is upheld by independent adjudicators, we believe that it is right that we must supply enough space. As we do not have enough space in our detention centres, we must use prisons.
Does the Minister recognise that, despite her statement today, many people think it a scandal that so many people have been in prison for so long when no offence has been committed? Does she agree that no one should be allowed admission to this country when they stage a hunger strike, but that delays are unacceptable? In the case of those on hunger strike in Rochester, may we have assurances from the Minister that there will be no further delays, that they will be told when they will get an appeal and that that appeal will be soon? Does the Minister recognise that many hon. Members are somewhat dismayed that such a situation is still occurring, given the reassurances that the House was given in respect of delays during the passage of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993?
I am amazed at that series of questions. I can only conclude that two things must be true: first, that the hon. Lady had prepared her remarks before she came in; and, secondly, that she did not manage somehow to revise them in the light of what I have already said.
Is my hon. Friend aware that two separate and responsible witnesses gave presentations last week to the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and that that caused no little concern to those of us who heard the evidence of those witnesses, one of whom concentrated on the psychological health of detainees? Although I have absolute confidence in her conduct when managing this situation, would she or the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who is also sitting on the Treasury Bench, be prepared to meet hon. Members to discuss the underlying issues?
Is the Minister aware that, to independent observers of this exchange, the Government's response will seem bureaucratic, inhumane and harsh? People will remember the totally different and more generous approach taken when people escaped from Tsarist Russia and the pogroms and when people came in the 1930s from Germany. Many hon. Members are descended from those who were given admission. Particularly in view of the Prime Minister's recent boast in India that he was the friend of the ethnic communities, the Minister's answer will sound singularly unconvincing.
What I find unconvincing is the tendency of Opposition Members to deplore the present situation, without actually saying what the alternative is. Is the alternative seriously not to detain anybody? Is it seriously to release people because they choose distressing methods of attempting to press their case? Should we seriously simply say that anybody who comes to this country, no matter what the circumstances, can wander around free, even if there are very good reasons why we and other responsible persons believe that that should not be allowed? In the absence of any sensible alternative suggestion, I believe that our policy is correct.
Is my hon. Friend aware that all hunger strikers practise moral blackmail on society? Does she agree that, however compelling certain cases might be—I do not accept that the cases we are debating are compelling—to give way undermines the structures that underpin our society and our approach to sensible living?
My hon. Friend has summed up the issue very sensibly. However distressing or difficult the circumstances in which people are now putting themselves, we have food, fluids and all the necessary medical care available. All the help and advice in the world is available to those people. If they choose not to avail themselves of it, I deeply regret that, but in the last analysis, that is their decision.
I have already quoted the circumstances in which some of the detainees find themselves in detention. I quoted one case in which a detainee had served a sentence in this country for indecent assault on children. As the hon. Lady challenges my Christianity, perhaps I may quote to her:
Whoso shall offend one of these
little ones … it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck".
The hon. Lady knows that very well.
Although Rochester prison is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner), a number of people are concerned, for humane reasons, about the circumstances in which people are detained in Rochester. Specifically, they are worried about the way in which the decision to detain is taken and the reviews that take place thereafter. They would like to know what those reviews are, how frequently they are carried out and by whom.
Reviews are carried out at regular intervals and, as I said, written decisions are taken, and written reasons then given, every month. When someone has been in detention for six months or more, the information is regularly brought before a director in the immigration service.
Should we not remember that we had better be a bit careful about biblical references? Did not the Bible say something about charity? Will the Minister consult some of her distinguished and senior colleagues and find out whether they have a conscience as to what the shade of their grandfathers has to say?
Does charity involve not detaining people whom we believe it is in the public interest to detain? If that is the definition of charity, it is the oddest definition that I have heard. As for my allegedly rude answer, I was challenged on a most personal basis of religious belief and I believe that I had every right to answer in like terms.
Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that every reasonable person, hearing what she has said today about the processes by which we deal with the detained 1 per cent. of asylum seekers, will consider that this action is sadly necessary, decent, humane and totally beyond reproach?
Could the Minister tell us a little more about the way in which the authorities treat hunger strikers? What counselling is available to them to try to get them off hunger strike? What access is made available to their family and friends, so that they may try to dissuade them from the action?
The Minister knows of a case about which I am in correspondence with her Department—that of Mr. Barry Home, who has been on hunger strike since 6 January. He is protesting about experiments on animals. She is good on animals, but not so good on people. I understand that he was moved, as a category A prisoner—he is on remand—from Bullingdon prison to Bristol prison in handcuffs. The man can hardly walk. Is it necessary to handcuff hunger strikers?
Order. We are getting on to the subject of a different prisoner in a different situation. Does the Minister want to respond to that? The question was quite outside the terms of the private notice question.
Will my hon. Friend comment on speculation in the press that two temporary prisons on land and a possible floating prison that might end up in my constituency in Portland might be used as detention centres for asylum seekers? Is such speculation correct, and is that the Government's intention?
I recognise the sensitivity of the issue. My hon. Friend said that medicine, food and liquids were available to the prisoners. There is a fine line between suicide, euthanasia and taking one's own life by depriving oneself of food. Has my hon. Friend given the matter thought? Is there any point at which the Government would step in to save a life?
There is no point at which we would force-feed or force on people medical treatment that they had indicated they did not want. We are keeping available medical attention that would immediately assist. We hope that medical intervention would obviate the possibility of a death occurring, but we cannot force that treatment on people. If they decide to refuse it, that must be a matter for them.
I welcome my hon. Friend's statement on a serious and difficult matter. Does she agree that, however difficult and awful it may be when people go on hunger strike, it should not deflect us from the point that detention is necessary in a minority of cases? Does she further agree that, in the light of the case histories outlined in the House this afternoon, many people might wonder why some of the asylum seekers are still in this country?
Those who are seeking asylum are in this country because we have to go through the proper procedures. They are entitled to appeal and, if they choose, to judicial review. Sometimes, even when all avenues have been exhausted and we wish to remove them, documentation and difficulties from the receiving country can make that difficult. For all those reasons, they are in this country. Those who are in the country in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend are precisely the ones who are cases for detention.
Earlier, there was a sedentary intervention—a justified one—from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock). The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) combined several references in his question, including my response to the hon. Member for Christchurch and my biblical quotation, which was in response to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). That was why I said that my quotation and my response to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley were fully justified. I also consider my response to the hon. Member for Christchurch to be fully justified: she had not listened to a word that I had said.
Does my hon. Friend recall that during the private notice question the observation has been made that Britain is almost alone in using detention centres for asylum seekers? That is quite bogus. Many countries use detention centres, but others use reception centres. On the surface, those appear to be voluntary, but it is difficult to avoid them because all welfare support is withdrawn unless the asylum seekers go to the reception centres. Is it not true that we are not alone in seeing that those who need to be detained are detained and dealt with, for the safety of our own citizens?
My hon. Friend is right. We detain only about 1·5 per cent.—currently about 1 per cent.—of those who are seeking asylum. The rest, to whom we give temporary admission while we sort out their cases, are free to go anywhere they like in this country. In other countries, that is not so: those who are seeking asylum are held in reception centres and their movements are heavily limited. Our approach to those who are seeking asylum is a model of humanity.
Order. Abusive exchanges about personalities across the Floor of the House must cease. We are concerned with Government policy and not with personalities.
In relation to the answer that my hon. Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), would it not be more humane for medical staff to give fluids to hunger strikers—forcibly if necessary—in one or two highly exceptional cases, to ensure that they do not die or damage themselves permanently?
I honour the reasoning behind that question, and I understand that such a case could be made in the interests of preserving life. However, if people who are in full possession of their faculties decide that they do not want a particular course of medicine, regardless of whether they are in detention or free in society, it cannot be forced upon them.
I need no prompting from such a gentleman. I have consulted one of my more Christian colleagues, and I was reprimanded by him that it was un-Christian comment. On that ground, as an old-fashioned Presbyterian—and in order to oblige you, Madam Speaker—of course I withdraw that observation.