Backbench Business — Immigration Detention

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:14 pm on 10th September 2015.

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Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 1:14 pm, 10th September 2015

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I thank Paul Blomfield for tabling the motion.

This should not be a debate about how we detain migrants and asylum seekers; in truth, it is a debate about how we treat our fellow human beings, many of whom are vulnerable and have suffered unmentionable experiences. When we consider the question of immigration, detention with no time limit cannot be the answer. On the latest figures provided by the Government, 187 people who were in detention last year had been detained for between one and two years, and another 29 people had been detained for two years or longer. Such arbitrary detention is an attack on the human rights of each and every one of those detainees.

Detention centres are horrific places. One man’s account describes his 37 months in detention as

“three years in a cage”.

That is time he spent isolated from his family, friends and support network; time spent being treated more like an animal than a human being.

It is clear that the system is utterly broken. Any system that allows people to be held indefinitely cannot be described as anything else. Any system that allows people to be locked up and forgotten about and to be denied any semblance of human dignity can only be described as an obscenity. In denying dignity to detainees, we denigrate our own humanity. We need an immigration system that is focused on fairness, not forced detention. A more compassionate, pragmatic and workable approach is needed.

I am dealing with several immigration cases for constituents at the moment, although none have involved any form of detention. If those cases are anything to go by, the procedures that have been put in place by the Home Office are counter-productive and often devoid of common sense. One constituent whom I have spoken about in this place before, Merai Mupunga, cannot work to support her family because her partner’s income falls slightly short of an ill-conceived minimum income threshold. This is a respectable lady who wants to contribute to society and cannot. Her dignity and self-worth are being robbed from her. Merai is fortunate in one sense: she has not had her liberty taken from her—a fate that seems to befall far too many people.

The cost to wider society simply cannot be underestimated. The removal of intrinsic rights from any individual not only robs communities of their potential, but costs the public purse dearly. With a cost of about £36,000 per detainee per year and more than 32,000 immigrants detained last year, we owe it to the taxpayer to change how we deal with immigration detention. The amounts paid by the Home Office in compensation following claims for unlawful detention have totalled almost £15 million over the past three years. Those figures all point to a system that simply is not working.

We need to take a holistic approach to the procedures, case management and detention infrastructure across the UK. We need to be critical and ask ourselves how we can make the system not only fit for purpose, but humane. It is important that the system operates with a defined distinction between criminal and administrative detention. It is also important that the system allows for scrutiny and review. I am not convinced that the current system does either of those things very well.

The Government need not only to acknowledge the gravity of the findings of the joint inquiry by the all-party parliamentary groups on refugees and on migration, but to engage with the many organisations throughout the UK that are calling for reform. Scottish Detainee Visitors, the respected independent charity based in Glasgow, is one such voice that is calling for a considered change in approach. Each week, its volunteers visit detainees at Dungavel, which is in a neighbouring constituency to mine. Their first-hand experiences tell of horrific conditions, particularly for women, who find themselves greatly outnumbered by men. Some of those women are fleeing gender-based violence and situations that most of us are fortunate never to have experienced. One woman who was detained at Dungavel described her experience as like being

“a chicken surrounded by dogs”.

A recent inspection report into Dungavel noted that there were inevitable risks associated with holding women in a predominantly male centre, yet there were no specific policies focusing on the issue. The failings of the system need to be addressed and the Home Office needs to act. The introduction of a 28-day time limit is a good start, but it is only that. Detention needs to be used sparingly and only when it is necessary. We need to restore dignity to the lives of thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers, and we need to introduce some humanity to the cold mechanics of the Home Office.