Backbench Business — Immigration Detention

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 11:54 am on 10th September 2015.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 11:54 am, 10th September 2015

I, too, welcome and enthusiastically back the call for this House to support the recommendations in the report on the use of immigration detention in the UK. I congratulate the hon. Members who have secured the debate, as well as the hon. Members and support teams from the two all-party groups involved in the preparation of the report, and, indeed, all who provided the compelling evidence on which the report is based. It is a thorough and comprehensive report and we welcome, as Paul Blomfield said, the holistic approach taken to the issue, looking at the detention system as a whole.

I pay tribute lastly, but very importantly, to the many individuals and organisations who have contacted MPs in advance of this debate. I have some not so fond recollections as an immigration solicitor of taking that long and winding road into the middle of nowhere to get to Dungavel immigration removal centre; as Mr Burrowes remarked, it would be very easy for the people detained there and in other removal centres to fall out of our minds. The fact that they do not do so and that there are still so many people fighting on their behalf and taking up their cause is a great source of optimism and one of the key reasons why we are here debating the issue today. That scale of interest almost certainly also reflects how badly the Government—indeed successive Governments—have got policy wrong in this area.

People see a straightforward injustice. They know that detention is a harmful and sometimes catastrophic experience for individuals; they see so many going through the awful experience of detention not for breaking the criminal law, but for the sake of the Home Office’s administrative convenience; and they know that is wrong. The existing legal framework requires serious reform, not simply some tinkering around the edges. It is vital that the Government not only acknowledge that fact, but implement the inquiry’s recommendations.

Why is the current system so completely unacceptable? In short, the evidence shows that it detains too many people; it detains them for too long; it detains people who should never be detained for any period of time and too often detains them in very poor and utterly inappropriate prison-like conditions; and it is a costly and inefficient system. It is worth expanding briefly on a couple of those points.

The UK’s immigration estate is one of the largest in Europe; it is hugely bloated, with places for up to almost 3,400 people. In 2013, the UK detained

30,418 different people, compared with 4,309 in Germany, which incidentally received over four times as many asylum applications as the UK. We detain significantly more people than any other EU country. Detention in the UK has become so regular that it can be fairly described as a matter of routine—far away from a policy that is used “sparingly” as Home Office guidance suggests, never mind a policy of last resort. People are too often detained for lengthy periods. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central recalled the evidence to the inquiry of a gentleman who had been in detention for three whole years.

The UK is also too often guilty of locking up vulnerable people. As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate remarked, in four years the UK has been found to have breached the article 3 convention rights of mentally ill individuals. A detention centre is not the appropriate place for these vulnerable people. That was why the long overdue decision was made that children should not be locked up in such circumstances. Many more vulnerable people are still being detained and should not be.

If the dreadful human costs of such practices do not convince the Government, perhaps the financial costs will justify change, because the policy is expensive. In 2013-14 the cost of running the immigration detention estate was £164 million and the cost of detaining one person for one year was £36,000.

What is required? I fully support the ideas proposed in the report and I will briefly mention some of what I regard as the key proposals. One of the problems of the system that was highlighted in the inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group is the lack of a time limit on detention. The lack of a time limit and of certainty is a huge cause of distress, as people have no idea for how long they will be detained. As we have heard, it also leads to lazy and sloppy operations by the Home Office.

We need automatic and regular reviews of whether people should be detained, as well as an effective presumption in favour of community-based alternatives to detention. We want an end to detention in prison-like conditions. I pay tribute to everyone who has contributed to bringing this report before the House, and we in the Scottish National party will wholeheartedly continue to support its implementation.