I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I very much agree with him. That was a feature of the evidence we received. Addressing that issue is important to ensure justice and speed in processing applications, which is in the interests of everybody.
I mentioned poor working in the consideration of cases, and the representation we heard from the prisons inspectorate suggested that, in one quarter of the cases it had looked at, prolonged detention was the result of inefficient case working. Therefore, having a time limit is not simply about justice and humanity; it is about ensuring a focus in the system and changing the culture. Medical experts also told us that the sense of being in limbo—the sense of hopelessness and despair—leads to deteriorating mental health. One expert from the Helen Bamber Foundation told us that those detained for more than 30 days had significantly higher mental health problems.
Although they are called immigration removal centres, we found that most people who leave detention do so for reasons other than being removed from the UK. That is an important point. According to the latest immigration statistics, more than half the detainees released are released back into the country, so this is not just about the impact on those detained; it is also about cost and the good use of public money. It costs some £36,000 a year to detain somebody for 12 months, so a huge amount of taxpayers’ money is being spent on detaining people who we will eventually release into the UK anyway.
Our central recommendation is for a maximum time limit set in statute, not simply to right the wrong of indefinite definition, but to change the culture endemic in the system. We settled on 28 days, not only because it reflects best practice from other countries, but because it is workable for the Home Office, given that in the first three quarters of 2014 only 37% of people were detained for longer. It also reflects the evidence of the mental health impact on those detained for more than a month. We also recommended that decisions to detain should meet the aims of the Home Office’s own guidance—that is, taken more sparingly and only genuinely as a last resort to effect removal. Deprivation of liberty should not be a decision taken lightly, nor should it be taken arbitrarily. Currently, decisions are taken by relatively junior Home Office officials, with no automatic judicial oversight. With no time limit, it has become too easy for people to be detained for months on end, with no meaningful way of challenging their continued detention.
The introduction of a time limit and the reduction in the reliance on detention would represent a significant change. In order to detain fewer people for shorter periods, the Government will need to introduce a much wider range of community-based alternatives. In our report, we give a number of examples of those alternatives, from places as different as the United States and Australia, which is often cited as an example because of its tough immigration system, as well as Sweden, which we visited in the course of the inquiry. These alternatives allow people to remain in communities while their cases are resolved, including when making arrangements to leave the country. These alternatives are not only more humane, but cost less and have a higher compliance level.
There is a UK precedent. When the coalition Government committed to reducing the number of children detained, they introduced a family returns process, which the House of Commons Library described as designed
“to encourage refused families to comply with instructions to depart from the UK at an earlier stage, such as by giving them more control over the circumstances of their departure.”
It worked. There has been a dramatic fall in the number of children detained, and the Home Office’s own evaluation of the scheme found that most families complied with the process—with no increase in absconding.
There are a number of other recommendations in the report; others will refer to them, but let me briefly cover them. We recommend that pregnant women and victims of rape and sexual violence should never be detained, and that the shocking harassment and abuse experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender detainees must be addressed.