Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 28th January 2019.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee) 6:30 pm, 28th January 2019

Sir John Hayes made a wide-ranging speech, but I will address the narrower, more specific issue raised by the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) in their interventions on the Home Secretary, which is the question of immigration detention.

This Bill repeals the law relating to free movement, thereby bringing EEA nationals and their families within general immigration control and requiring them to have leave to enter and remain under the Immigration Act 1971. The Government told the 3 million EU citizens who are here:

“You are our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues. We want you to stay.”

The Government said that they only have to register, as they are existing residents. I do not doubt the Home Secretary’s sincerity on that, but it is, of course, exactly what was said to people of the Windrush generation. Everyone now acknowledges that terrible mistakes were made by the Home Office and that people who have been here for years were wrongfully detained as illegal immigrants.

If we are to subject 3 million EU citizens to our immigration system, it is right that we should now ask ourselves whether we have learned the lessons of the Windrush cases so that we do not repeat those injustices on EU citizens. We do not want the new level playing field to be a detention centre.

I have the privilege of chairing the Joint Committee on Human Rights and, following our inquiry into immigration detention, we are clear that two problems need to be addressed. The first is the lack of independence in decision making on detention, and the second is indefinite detention.

If a person is suspected of a crime, they cannot be detained by the Government; they can be detained only by the police, who are independent of Government. If the police want to continue to detain a person beyond 36 hours, they have to bring that person before a court, which is, of course, totally independent of Government.

But if the Home Office suspects a person of being in breach of our immigration laws, there is a complete absence of independence in the decision making. A civil servant—nameless, faceless and behind closed doors—just ticks a box to detain them. The first that person will know about it is when someone bangs on their door in the early hours of the morning to bundle them into an immigration enforcement van and take them to a detention centre.

With no independence in the decision making, and with no scrutiny or accountability, mistakes are inevitable. Those we get to hear about are probably only the tip of the iceberg, but we do know that £21 million was paid out by the Home Office in just five years to compensate for wrongful detention, and terrible mistakes are certainly what happened in the Windrush cases.

It is routinely said those people were unable to prove their residence here, which is not the case for the detainees we saw. We looked at their Home Office files, which the Home Secretary was good enough to release to them, and it was not that there was no evidence of their residence here. There was masses of it, including records of national insurance contributions going back to the 1970s. If there had been any independence in the decision making, these people would never have been detained, yet they were detained not once but twice. The papers in their files were ignored, and the pleas of their families were swept aside.

After the right to life, the right not to be unlawfully detained is one of the most important human rights. It should not be the case that a person has fewer protections from wrongful detention as an immigrant than they would if they had actually committed a crime. We should ensure that, in future, no one is detained unless the decision is taken independently. The Home Office should make its case, but someone independent must take the decision if a person is to be deprived of their liberty. The Joint Committee on Human Rights will table an amendment to that effect, and we hope the Government will agree to it.

Another deplorable aspect of our immigration system, to which EU citizens are now to be subject under this Bill, is that there is no time limit on detention. A person is taken from their home or workplace, and they have no idea whether they will be in the detention centre for a day, a month or a year. Evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights identified the indefinite nature of such detention as one of its cruellest aspects.

The criminal justice system imposes time limits at every stage, from first bringing a defendant before a magistrate to the sentence that sets out their time in prison, but the Home Office can hold a person in immigration detention indefinitely. The Joint Committee on Human Rights agrees with the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield and for Haltemprice and Howden, Mr Grieve and my right hon. Friends the Members for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) that there should be a time limit of 28 days on immigration detention, and the Joint Committee will table an amendment to the Bill so that if a detainee is not deported or released by then, they should be brought before a judge where the Home Office can apply for just a further 28 days. We hope the Government will accept an amendment on detention that I believe has widespread support in the House, including from the SNP—we have heard from Stuart C. McDonald, and Joanna Cherry is a leading member of our Joint Committee—and the Lib Dems, and I know the DUP has long complained about indefinite detention.

This is not a party issue. It seems to be the Home Office versus everybody else. The Labour Government should have ended the scandal of indefinite detention when we were in office, but we did not, and I am now happy to apologise for that—it is something we should have done.