Backbench Business — Immigration Detention

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 10th September 2015.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 1:31 pm, 10th September 2015

I apologise for coming late to the debate, after the first half hour, and missing the earlier contributions.

It is interesting that no one is defending the system overall, which is a significant breakthrough. I do not think we would have had this debate five or six years ago, but people have learned a lot of lessons. I have two detention centres in my constituency because I have Heathrow airport: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. Thirty years ago as a local councillor, I used to visit Harmondsworth. Back then, it was a Nissen hut with no more than a dozen people in it. I now have two detention centres with a combined population of 1,000 detainees, and the system is absolutely brutal.

As I have Heathrow in my constituency, I am almost the last resort MP before deportation. My number is scrawled on the walls of the detention centres, and those detained contact my constituency office. My caseload is enormous. I do not know how my staff get through it, to be frank. It is so distressing, I wonder how they get through it emotionally as well. The pleas we receive are desperate, because of the system itself, not just the issue of deportation or removal; it is about how people have been treated up to that point. Often, someone will report as normal to the Home Office on a weekly or monthly basis and will get swept in, or it is as a result of a raid. Years ago in my constituency, we had dawn raids, with white vans and so on. They have gone now, but more raids are happening at workplaces now, so the white van system is returning. People are dragged traumatised into a detention centre. The paperwork is chaotic—we all know that—partly because of staff cuts in the department dealing with these cases. In addition, the access to legal assistance and advice is largely non-existent, except for the wonderful people providing volunteer services in the detention centres.

Those people do not know whether they will be there a week, a fortnight, a year or longer. The indefinite detention is the worst thing possible and it undermines individuals’ psychological wellbeing, because they do not know their future either way. That results in self-harming. I have had suicides in Harmondsworth. The case of the 83-year-old man who was handcuffed was from my detention centre in Harmondsworth. An 83-year-old man on his deathbed was put in chains and handcuffs. It was a scandal. I pay tribute to the monitoring board visiting the detention centres in my area. It monitors the system voluntarily, produces reports and exposes such scandals.

I accept all the recommendations from the all-party groups and commend the work they have done. Sarah Teather, who is no longer a Member, did fantastic work on this, both as a Minister and as a Back Bencher. I accept all the recommendations, but I want the detention centres closed. There are alternatives within the community, such as those my right hon. Friend Mr Smith raised. There must be a more civilised way of dealing with people. I used to visit children in Harmondsworth, and I raised the matter time and again with the then Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. I am pleased we no longer have children in the full detention centres, but we still detain children.

I give this warning: if the detention centres are not closed, there will be more self-harming and more suicides. Harmondsworth has been burned down twice as a result of rioting. The hunger strikes go on, as we speak, on a regular basis. The riots will come back. This is no way to treat our fellow human beings. We have to find another way. Yes, let us accept the recommendations today, but in the long run let us close these establishments, which have so significantly failed to respect the human rights of those detained.