With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on immigration detention. As the House knows, our immigration system is made up of many different and interconnected parts. Immigration detention is an important part of that system, and it encourages compliance with our immigration rules, protects the public from the consequences of illegal migration and ensures that people who are here illegally, or who are foreign criminals, can be removed from this country when all else fails.
Detention is not a decision that is taken lightly. When we make the decision to detain someone, their welfare is an absolute priority. The Windrush revelations have shown that our immigration system, as a whole, is not perfect, that there are some elements that need much closer attention and that there are lessons we must learn.
That is why I welcome Stephen Shaw’s second independent review of immigration detention, commissioned by this Government and which I am laying before the House today. Copies are available from the Vote Office and on gov.uk. I am grateful to Mr Shaw for his comprehensive and thoughtful report, which recognises the progress this Government have made in reforming immigration detention since his last report in 2016 but challenges us to go even further.
As the review notes, we have made significant changes to detention in the UK in recent years. Over the past three years, we have reduced the number of places in removal centres by a quarter. We detained 8% fewer people last year than the year before. Last year, 64% of those detained left detention within a month, and 91% left within four months. And 95% of people liable for removal at any one time are not in detention at all but are carefully risk assessed and managed in the community instead.
In his report, Stephen Shaw commends the “energetic way” in which his 2016 recommendations have been taken forward. He notes that conditions across immigration removal centres have “improved” since his last review three years ago. We now have in place the adults at risk in immigration detention policy to identify vulnerable adults more effectively and make better balanced decisions about the appropriateness of their detention. We have also strengthened the checks and balances in the system, setting up a team of special detention gatekeepers to ensure decisions to detain are reviewed. We have also created panels to challenge the progress on detainees’ cases and their continuing detention. We have taken steps to improve mental health care in immigration removal centres, and we have also changed the rules on bail hearings. Anyone can apply for bail at any time during detention. In January, we further changed the rules, so that detainees are also automatically referred for a bail hearing once they have been detained for four months. All of that is good work. However, I agree with Stephen Shaw that these reforms are still bedding in, and that there have been cases and processes we have not always got right. Now I want to pick up the pace of reform and commit today to four priorities going forward.
First, let me be absolutely clear that the Government’s starting point, as always, is that immigration detention is only for those for whom we are confident that no other approaches will work. Encouraging and supporting people to leave voluntarily is of course preferable. I have asked the Home Office to do more to explore alternatives to detention with faith groups, with non-governmental organisations and within communities. As a first step, I can announce today that we intend to pilot a scheme to manage vulnerable women in the community who would otherwise be detained at Yarl’s Wood. My officials have been working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to develop this pilot, which will mean that, rather than receiving support and care in an immigration removal centre, the women will get a programme of support and care in the community instead.
Secondly, the Shaw review recommends how this Government can improve the support available for vulnerable detainees. Mr Shaw describes the adults-at-risk policy as “a work in progress”. We will continue that progress, ensuring that the most vulnerable and complex cases get the attention they need. We will look again at how we can improve the consideration of rule 35 reports on possible cases of torture, while avoiding abuse of these processes. We will also pilot an additional bail referral at the two-month point, halving the time in detention before a first bail referral. We will also look at staff training and support to make sure that the people working in our immigration system are well equipped to work with vulnerable detainees, and we will increase the number of Home Office staff in immigration removal centres.
Thirdly, in his report, Stephen Shaw also rightly focuses on the need for greater transparency around immigration detention. I will publish more data on immigration detention, and I am commissioning the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration to report each year on whether and how the adults-at-risk policy is making a difference.
Fourthly, and finally, I also want to see a new drive on dignity in detention. I want to see an improvement to the basic provision available to detainees. The practice in some immigration removal centres of having three detainees in rooms designed for two will stop immediately. I have also commissioned an urgent action plan for modernising toilet facilities. We will also pilot the use of Skype so that detainees can contact their families overseas more easily.
I am aware of the arguments that are made on time limits for immigration detention. However, as Mr Shaw’s review finds, the debate on this issue currently rests more on slogans than on evidence. That is why I have asked my officials to review how time limits work in other countries and how they relate to any other protections within their detention systems, so we can all have a better-informed debate and ensure our detention policy is based on not only what works to tackle illegal migration, but what is humane for those who are detained. Once this review is complete, I will further consider the issue of time limits on immigration detention.
The Shaw review confirms that we are on the right track with our reforms of immigration detention and that we should maintain a steady course, but Stephen Shaw also identifies areas where we could and should do better. So my goal is to ensure that our immigration system, including our approach to immigration detention, is fair and humane. This is what the public rightly expect from us. They want rules that are firmly enforced, but in a way that treats people with the dignity they deserve. The changes I have announced today will help to make sure that that is the case, and I commend this statement to the House.