As one of the Members who applied for this debate, I welcome the cross-party call for action: Paul Blomfield, my hon. Friend Richard Fuller, and SNP Members, too, were involved in securing the debate. Colleagues across the House are concerned about this issue. In this first substantive debate on it, they are calling for a comprehensive investigation, not least on the basis of the report recommendations.
Today is the fourth day in succession when the broad subject of immigration has been debated in the House. Sixty years ago, Winston Churchill complained to Ian Gilmour about immigration, saying:
“I think it is the most important subject facing this country, but I cannot get any of my Ministers to take any notice.”
Today and this week—thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, hon. Members and campaign groups such as Citizens UK, which have been out there across the country over months and years wanting immigration detention to get noticed—Ministers are not struggling to take notice of the issue.
The reality is, however, that immigration detention does not get sufficient attention. The more than 30,000 people held in 11 immigration removal centres last year were largely unnoticed—out of sight, and largely out of mind. These people were locked up without having any clear idea of when they would be released or removed. The issue occasionally gets headlines—on Channel 4 documentaries, for example. Last year, my constituent Yashika Bageerathi, aged 18 and in the middle of her A-level studies, gained public and parliamentary attention when she was separated from her family, detained and eventually deported. Yashika brought to the attention of all of us the individual humanity of the issue, which recent debates have also highlighted; she humanised the plight of thousands of detainees each year and reminded us of the issue that has run through previous debates about the refugee crisis, not least this week and in the past week or so, and will run through this one—our core value of human dignity.
We need to take serious action because many detainees do not know when they are going to be released. The following statistics were published in August: 430 people have been detained for more than six months; and 137 have been detained for more than a year. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons found that in The Verne nearly 40 people had been detained for more than a year and one had been detained for more than five years. Souleymane, a former detainee, told the inquiry that
“in prison, you count your days down, but in detention you count your days up.”
As a criminal defence solicitor, I know that the first thing a prisoner will always ask me is, “When is the earliest date of release?” They will be able to get that answer, but most detainees in IRCs do not know the earliest or latest date of release. Let us not forget that most of those detained in IRCs have not been convicted of any crime. I say “IRC” because it is hard to say immigration removal centres, as for far too many the word “removal” is a misnomer. Half of all people who leave the centres are released back into the community rather than being removed.
There is also clear evidence to show that some detainees are treated worse than prisoners who have been convicted of very serious offences. In the past four years the High Court has on six occasions found against the Home Office for causing inhuman or degrading treatment to some of the most vulnerable of people—mentally disordered detainees in long-term detention. In the case of BA, the High Court described “callous indifference” and
“a deplorable failure…to recognise the nature and extent of BA’s illness”.