I am very grateful to be able to speak in this extremely important debate. I must first declare an interest, having compiled a number of mental health assessments of detainees in my previous role as a clinical psychologist in the NHS.
Prior to the debate, I attended Dungavel immigration removal centre, which is housed in my constituency, and met detainees, staff, management, Home Office staff and immigration services in order to inform my understanding of local service provision. In February this year, Dungavel was subject to an unplanned inspection by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. The findings from the published report were positive overall regarding the general operation of the centre and the conditions for detainees. However, recent inspections of other detention establishments, such as Yarl’s Wood and Verne, have not been positive in that regard. The report on Dungavel indicates that the inspector’s main concerns were largely outside the control of the contractor—namely, some very long periods of detention and decisions to maintain detention of extremely vulnerable detainees. This gives further weight to the findings of the inquiry by the all-party groups that the problems with detention are systematic and would not be solved simply by
“tinkering with pastoral care or improving the facilities”.
As I come from a health background, the APPG inquiry raises extremely concerning issues to me about the effects of detention, particularly prolonged and indefinite detention, on the mental wellbeing of individuals. It observes that being detained indefinitely without knowing for how long, with the continual possibility both of imminent release and imminent removal, means that detainees have simultaneous concerns that there will be sudden change or never-ending stasis. Information provided to the inquiry by the Helen Bamber Foundation indicated that being detained for more than 30 days correlated with having significantly higher levels of mental health issues. The APPGs propose setting a time limit of 28 days on the length of time that anyone can be held in immigration detention. The current lack of a time limit does not improve efficiency. Indeed, it appears that the lack of any external pressure to complete cases within a set time frame has led to poor caseworking. This is reinforced by the inspectorate’s report from Dungavel, which referred to finding a number of prolonged detentions related to unavoidable casework delays.
Another significant concern relates to the detention of extremely vulnerable individuals. Under the current system, there is a provision under rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules 2001 that aims to ensure that particularly vulnerable detainees whose health it is feared is likely to be affected by detention are brought to the attention of the appropriate authority in order to review decisions and to consider whether detention is appropriate. The policy recommends that vulnerable groups such as victims of torture should be detained only in very exceptional circumstances. Despite this, the recent inspectorate report from Dungavel expressed particular concerns about decisions to continue to detain a torture survivor and a woman with a serious health condition.
As regards identifying those who are particularly vulnerable, reports have highlighted issues with a lack of training among detention centre staff in recognising the effects of abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and human trafficking. In addition, it appears that initial screening procedures and the environments in which they are conducted are not always conducive to identifying such vulnerabilities, especially as disclosure of trauma can be a very complex issue. There are many potential barriers that could impact on a victim’s ability to disclose their experiences, particularly when being held in an immigration centre.
The APPG findings indicate that the provision of mental health services in detention centres is often very poor; detainees have reportedly found it very hard to receive treatment, even after having tried to commit suicide. It appears that many of the negative experiences of healthcare provision are linked to the number of people detained and the length of time for which they are held, alongside the lack of access to psychiatric provision. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is of the view that it is impossible to treat serious mental illness satisfactorily in a detention setting, as it is not a therapeutic environment. In fact, one of the medical personnel who gave evidence during the APPG inquiry, Dr Danny Allen, described it as “counter-therapeutic”.
Another pertinent issue raised by the inquiry team is a need for gender-specific policies. At the time of the recent inspection, it was reported that the 14 women at the Dungavel centre alongside 249 male residents were housed separately in an environment that was safe and supportive, and where individual needs were being met. However, the inspectors recognised that there were still inevitable risks associated with holding women in a predominantly male centre, and that those risks were not addressed by policy. When I visited the centre, I was informed that a small proportion of detainees had criminal backgrounds and that staff were concerned that because prison records had not followed detainees to the centre they were unaware of some of the risks. The charity Scottish Detainee Visitors has noted that it has not been unusual for just one or two women to be detained at Dungavel. That can be isolating and frightening, particularly in the light of research suggesting a high prevalence of gender-based violence histories among detained women, this often having been part of the persecution that they were fleeing.
I urge the Minister to take on board the recommendations of the report, particularly where it pertains to holding very vulnerable individuals in detention centres.