Backbench Business — Immigration Detention

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:56 pm on 10th September 2015.

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Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Home Office) 1:56 pm, 10th September 2015

I am pleased to speak in this incredible debate, and to thank my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield and the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for securing it. I thank members of the all-party groups on refugees and on migration for their joint inquiry, and I want to acknowledge the work of Sarah Teather in bringing this about.

This report has rightly been welcomed as a powerful intervention in the debate on the reform of our detention system. We have heard excellent contributions from, I think, 25 hon. Members today—contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central; the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald); the hon. Member for Bedford; my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma); Henry Smith; my right hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart; Jeremy Lefroy; my right hon. Friend Mr Smith; the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and—excuse me if I do not pronounce it correctly—Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron); Nusrat Ghani; my hon. Friend Dr Huq; Mims Davies; Mr Carmichael; the hon. Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens); my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell); Anne McLaughlin; and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West).

The issue unites not just the House, as is clear from the debate, but the country, demonstrating the powerful and overwhelming case for reform of a system that is not fit for purpose. Members have raised a range of issues—on time limits; the detention of the wrong people; the unnecessary deprivation of liberty; the experience of women, often victims of sexual abuse or human trafficking, in detention; the need for gender-specific processes; poor case management; access to justice and legal advice; access to health services; the desperate issue of self-harm and suicide; mental health issues caused by, as well as worsened by, detention; family separation and accompanied minors; the long-term impacts on the well-being of children; the training of staff; and the desperate need to look at alternatives to detention.

We in the Labour party have repeatedly called for a review and reform of immigration detention policy. The current system is failing people who are scarred by a system where report after report shows detention being used disproportionately and for far too long. In fact, Home Office statistics for the first quarter of this year alone show 3,483 people held in immigration removal centres. Two thirds of them have been held for over 28 days. Of those, 488 had been detained for more than six months, 153 had been detained for more than a year, 25 had been detained for more than two years and one individual had been detained for more than four years. Not only is that expensive, but indefinite detention has been shown to have a highly negative impact on mental health and well-being. Will the Minister give the House more information on the reasons for such long detention times? What are the reasons for 488 people being held for more than six months? What countries are they from? What on earth could be the cause of someone being in detention for more than four years? What steps has the Minister taken to reduce that time?

Shockingly, between 2011 and 2014 the Government paid out nearly £15 million in compensation following claims for unlawful detention. The cost of failure is plain to see. What steps has the Minister taken to reduce that bill? What analysis has he undertaken of the root cause of these errors? The need for reform is clear, in order to achieve not just administrative excellence, with greater efficiency for the taxpayer, but a more proportionate use of detention in line with the principles of fairness and justice, with detention only as a last call, not a first call, as it has become.

I want to focus my remarks on three main areas: the need to end detention without limit; the reform so desperately needed for women detainees; and the need for us to rethink afresh about alternatives to detention. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, along with many others, spoke eloquently and passionately about the need for time limits. The UK is one of only a few countries in Europe not to have a statutory time limit, and we are out of sync even with Taiwan, Georgia and the United States, to name but a few. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees detention guidelines outline the need for statutory time limits. In May, the Home Secretary indicated that the length of detention is being considered by Home Office officials as part of a broader review of immigration detention. It is four months since then, so will the Minister update us on the progress of those discussions, on whether that is part of Stephen Shaw’s review and on when that review is expected to report? With broad support from both inside and outside the House for limited detention times, including from Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, and with so many calling for an end to indefinite detention, surely it is time to move forward. That point is made even more poignant with the extensive humanitarian crisis we are facing.

In August, we also saw another devastating report on Yarl’s Wood by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, and the experience of so many women in detention remains shocking: a third of detainees were transported to the centre overnight; the reception process took too long; detainees did not receive an adequate induction; even with the knowledge that the risk of self-harm is high, safeguarding procedures are underdeveloped; women on suicide watch report being observed by male guards, even in intimate situations; and detainees report feeling unsafe and being subject to sexually inappropriate comments from staff. Those experiences would be harrowing for anyone, but we must recall that a high proportion of women asylum seekers have also reported previous experience of domestic or sexual abuse, and they will be particularly vulnerable. Nearly half of those who go to Yarl’s Wood report saying that they feel suicidal on arrival. Yarl’s Wood is an embarrassment and we need to look at closure.

As has been mentioned today, nearly 100 pregnant women were detained last year, yet 90%—I repeat, 90%—of them were released. When 12 cases were examined, it was found that eight of these women should not have been detained or they should have been released earlier. A response to a written question about women detainees over the past three years showed that 834 out of more than 1,600 detained were released. Why were so many just released back into the community and not sent abroad?

I thank organisations such as Detention Action and Women for Refugee Women, which are represented here today, for the extraordinary work they do in raising the needs and the voices of those they support. In December last year, the shadow Home Secretary called for the prohibition of the detention of pregnant women and of individuals who have been trafficked or tortured or who have suffered sexual abuse. That proposal was also in Labour’s manifesto. It beggars belief that in the face of so much evidence the Government have still sat on their hands. It is also disappointing that the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, who published her report on the UK in June, was denied access to Yarl’s Wood; the Home Office has another chance here, and I hope the Minister will take that much-needed step and make a positive announcement today.

Finally, I wish to say a few words about alternatives to detention, as the report we are debating has laid out clear arguments for reviewing those. The UK has a long way to go to identify alternatives that are more cost-efficient and, in many cases, more effective. There is growing evidence from other countries, including Sweden and Australia, as to the benefits of stronger community- based approaches which allow for individualised case management, better access to legal advice and far less of a negative impact on well-being. Research has also shown that individuals who believe that they have been through a fair refugee status or visa determination process are more likely to accept and comply with a negative outcome. Will the Minister therefore update the House on the steps he may now be considering and how he plans to develop effective alternatives that go beyond a requirement to report or electronic monitoring?

We welcome this report and its findings, and thank those who have taken part. We also welcome the challenge it has laid out on the wholesale need for reform. More people who are detained are subsequently released than return to their country of origin. We now have an opportunity to do the right thing, at a time when we know that there will be no expansion of the estate but that demand is increasing. It is not just humane but vital that we see a culture change in our system and a change in the use of immigration detention so that it is a measure of last resort, not first resort. I look forward to the Minister’s response.