Immigration Detention: Victims of Modern Slavery

– in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 17 July 2019.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary 1:59, 17 July 2019

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on immigration detention and victims of modern slavery.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

Modern slavery is an abhorrent crime, and the Government are determined to stamp it out. In my role as Immigration Minister, I am especially aware of the shocking exploitation of vulnerable individuals from overseas who are duped by the promise of a better life in the UK, only to be trafficked and sold into modern slavery. Identifying and protecting victims of such crimes is a priority. In October 2017, we announced an ambitious package of reforms to the national referral mechanism. As well as improving the support on offer, these reforms are intended to provide quicker and more certain decision making, in which victims can have confidence.

I must make it clear, however, that being recognised as a victim of modern slavery does not automatically result in being granted immigration status in the UK. There may be victims of modern slavery who have no lawful basis to remain and for whom support is available to leave the UK voluntarily. It is important that we recognise the important role of our immigration policies. Although we are committed to supporting individuals to leave voluntarily, including with reintegration support, there may be occasions when they have exhausted all options and are refusing to leave, and we are faced with the difficult decision of detaining people to secure their return.

I want to reassure the House that we do not take these decisions lightly, but it may be necessary to detain individuals, even if they are vulnerable, to effect their removal. When that is the case, we seek to keep the period of detention as short as possible and place their welfare and safeguarding at the heart of what we do. The Home Secretary made clear his commitment to going further and faster with reforms to immigration detention, including by reducing the number of people we detain, increasing the number of voluntary returns and working with partners on alternatives to detention. We have made real progress in delivering these commitments. A number of women who would otherwise have been detained are now being managed in the community. Other pilots will begin later this year.

As we approach the first anniversary of Stephen Shaw’s second independent review of immigration detention, it is important to take stock of how far we have come, while acknowledging that there is much more to do to ensure that our approach to immigration detention is fair and humane.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. On 19 June this year, the Immigration Minister provided a written answer on the possible immigration detention of persons who are in fact victims of slavery. The written answer read as follows:

“there is no central record” of such persons, and

“The Home Office therefore does not collate or publish the data requested”.

However, we now learn from a freedom of information request by The Independent that that is not the case: 500 victims of enslavement or trafficking were held in immigration detention. I have myself visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre and met such persons.

In response to an earlier written question on 20 December last year, the Immigration Minister said:

“in cases in which it has been found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that an individual may be a victim of trafficking or modern slavery, the appropriateness of their being detained, or of their detention continuing, is governed by the Home Office’s modern slavery policy. This means that such individuals will not be detained”.

How many people who are victims of trafficking or modern slavery have been held in previous years? How many such people are currently held? Are the Government not in breach of their own stated policy on detention? How many of the 400 detainees were assessed as being a threat to public order and on what grounds? Does the Minister accept that when she responded to the written question saying that no data was available, she was in fact misleading the House?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

I reassure the right hon. Lady that I certainly was not misleading the House: there is no central record of those who have received a positive, conclusive grounds decision and are detained under immigration powers. While that information may be obtainable from the live Home Office case information database, otherwise referred to as CID, the information would be for internal management only. For example, some data may be incomplete and freedom of information requests are heavily caveated as such.

Releases of data from CID are always caveated and sometimes it is possible the data is not always accurate; there may be instances where individuals are counted twice. It is standard practice in parliamentary questions that we do not provide information that does not form part of published statistics. CID will show only those individuals who have been referred into the NRM from immigration teams and would not cover those referred to the NRM from other first responders, such as the police, social services or, potentially, medical practitioners.

The right hon. Lady asks specifically about the 507 individuals referred to in the After Exploitation report. I want to be very clear on this point: those were not 507 individuals detained after getting a positive reasonable grounds. As stated very clearly in the freedom of information response, the figure relates to people who had a positive reasonable grounds when entering detention or while in detention.

Further analysis of the figures shows that, of the 507 people in question, 479 received the positive reasonable grounds decision during a detention period—and of those, 328, or 68%, were released within two days of the decision and in total 422 were released within a week. Of the 57 detained for eight days or more following a positive reasonable grounds decision, 81% were foreign national offenders.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

What is particularly terrible about immigration detention is its indeterminate nature and the fact that detainees have so little information about their own cases and, indeed, about their rights. Habeas corpus is still one of our fundamental principles, isn’t it?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

Individuals in immigration detention are entitled to a free legal advice surgery of 30 minutes within the first 24 hours of their detention and to have as many of those surgeries thereafter. As part of the Shaw re-review of last year, we piloted automatic bail referrals after two months instead of four months, as previously.

I must correct my right hon. Friend: it is not lawful to detain individuals indefinitely. They may be detained only when there are realistic grounds for removal within a reasonable timescale.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Immigration detention is a hellish thing to inflict on anybody; that is especially true of victims of modern slavery and trafficking. Will the Government accept that the supposed safeguards, particularly the gatekeeping process, are just not working? Signs of trafficking and enslavement are not being picked up, as those 507 cases show. Even when they are, immigration enforcement factors are given greater priority.

What will be done to improve the malfunctioning gatekeeping process and when will an overhaul of the rule 35 process be completed? More fundamentally, for as long as we continue to detain people indefinitely in these awful institutions, should not decisions on whether to detain any individual and on who should be released be made entirely independently of the Home Office? At the very least, we need much stronger and faster independent judicial oversight.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

The Government are committed to ensuring that the rule 35 process operates effectively. In March this year, we launched our targeted consultation on the overhaul of the detention centre rules within which the operation of rule 35 is a key element; of course it is closely linked into the operation of the “adults at risk” policy. We continue to keep the detention gatekeeper function under close review, but I certainly think that it has shown an improvement on the situation before its introduction.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

Many victims of modern-day slavery are young and many are women. What support is given to such victims if they are identified as victims of modern-day slavery in a detention centre?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

As my hon. Friend will know, it is through the national referral mechanism that potential victims of modern slavery will be referred, and then support will be available to them. She is absolutely right to point out that many victims of modern slavery are young and many are women. I am sure that she will be pleased with our introduction of the pilot scheme currently operating in Newcastle; we have released women, who would otherwise be detained at Yarl’s Wood, to be supported in the community. I am very much looking forward to the possibility of introducing further pilots later this year. They will include not just women but men.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

Is there not something shocking about the Minister’s reply today? You may remember, Mr Speaker, that you allowed me a point of order on the factual inaccuracies that the Minister gave in a parliamentary answer when she said that she had no idea of the number of people who had escaped slavery and were now in detention centres. If it were not for After Exploitation, as my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott said, we would have no idea what those numbers were. Since those parliamentary interventions, it is quite clear that the Minister has now been briefed on what is happening. Given that, in her answer to my right hon. Friend, she said that large numbers of people were now not in detention centres, may I ask her where they are, because when these people, largely women, are released like this, without any help, they are often scooped up by the slave owners.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

The right hon. Gentleman will know that, at any one time, 95% of those liable to detention are actually in the community and not in immigration removal centres at all. It is important to emphasise that a freedom of information request will elicit different data to that which is available in parliamentary questions. I reiterate the point that no central record is held and that the information from the FOI has been collated from a variety of sources and may well give an inaccurate picture. If there is one thing that one learns as a Home Office Minister it is to be very wary of numbers at all times and not to seek to give numbers that may be inaccurate.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

In my constituency, there are two immigration detention centres: Tinsley House and Brook House. May I seek assurances from the Minister that the staff who operate those centres receive correct and adequate training to ensure that they are identifying and detecting those who may have been victims of modern slavery?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

It is still very much the case that it is the Home Office and Home Office staff in the widest sense who identify the greatest number of victims of modern slavery. Training is provided, and it is important that training is not only provided, but refreshed and is an ongoing process. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made her commitment clear on this issue, and it has been a driving force in the Home Office to support her in the mission to stamp out this terrible crime, to identify the victims and to ensure that they are given the help that they need as victims.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

The Government’s refusal to put a firewall between the police and labour inspection agencies and the Home Office for immigration purposes means that victims of modern slavery will continue to be at risk of detention and deportation. That is wrong, and it will deter victims from coming forward, which means that slavers and traffickers will get away with what they are doing. Will the Minister finally accept that data sharing for immigration enforcement must stop?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

The hon. Lady is simply wrong to suggest that data sharing is always bad. In fact, in many instances, data sharing between the Home Office and the police can identify people who need to be safeguarded, and it is crucial that we have systems that will enable people to be correctly identified and then referred through the appropriate mechanisms. As I said in response to an earlier question, it is still the Home Office that identifies the highest number of victims of modern slavery.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend Frank Field, is it not the case that keeping numbers centrally might be a good idea? I understand that the Minister said that that number is not kept centrally, but part of my right hon. Friend’s point was that, perhaps, it should be.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I ask the Minister if she will reconsider the possibility of keeping such numbers centrally, including breaking them down, for instance, by how many victims of torture are kept in detention. I know that she will say that the number is low, but the rule on adults at risk surely suggests that that number should be kept as low as possible, and we cannot know if it is unless we know what those numbers are.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

The Home Office is making good progress in replacing antiquated case-working systems and data platforms, much of which will be complete by March next year, but it is a complex change process and although it will provide us with modern tools to protect and utilise data effectively, it is not an instant fix and will require further investment in the coming years. The changes will also mean that we will be able to act more swiftly to update systems to provide better organisation and granularity of data once they are deployed, but it does not negate the risk that data can be easily misinterpreted and each individual’s journey through the system is different, and aggregated information does not always represent the work undertaken. None the less, we will continue to focus on individual needs.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My constituent Joel White, from Pollokshields, emailed me 20 minutes ago to say that he is a regular visitor to Dungavel immigration removal centre. He asked me to raise the case of a man that he spoke to recently who said:

“The Home Office don’t tell me nothing—they don’t tell me what’s going on. When I sit down here, I don’t know what is going on. Time is just rolling down the road. You just lose your mind. I just need any help.”

This man has been in Dungavel for six months. He does not know whether he is being removed or whether he is likely to be released at any time. Will the Minister take on such cases and end the scandal of indefinite detention?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

I reiterate the point that detention can only be maintained where there is a realistic chance of removal within a reasonable timescale. The hon. Lady will have heard me comment earlier about auto-bail applications at two months. An individual in detention can apply for bail at any time. I urge her constituent to provide that advice to the individual concerned.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Every Child Protected Against Trafficking has worked with child victims of trafficking who have been detained in immigration detention having been incorrectly considered to be adults. Despite displaying indicators of having been trafficked, these children can struggle to prove their age. They may not have identity documents or they may have been given false identity documents by their traffickers. What efforts is the Home Office making to ensure that no child who is a victim of trafficking is being held in immigration detention?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

The UK ended the routine detention of children in immigration removal centres in 2010 and enshrined that in law under the Immigration Act 2014. It is worth noting that, in the last year of the previous Labour Government, 1,100 children were held in detention. However, in some cases, individuals without documentary evidence of their age who are detained as adults subsequently claim to be children. When that occurs, our revised interim policy states that they will be afforded the benefit of the doubt and released into the care of social services until a further assessment of their age has been made, unless their physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggest that they are over 25 years of age. Home Office policy means that such cases may be counted as under-18s for the purposes of data collection, but the hon. Lady is right that we should not be detaining children, and we have put in place steps that will prevent that from happening. Where there is an age-dispute case, the benefit of the doubt will always be afforded to the individual.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Independent, Enfield North

I have repeatedly raised issues regarding victims of torture in immigration detention and asked questions on the number of Sri Lankan nationals granted refugee status after having previously been removed to Sri Lanka. Last November, the Minister said that there was no specific information available. It was only by pressing the Minister during a meeting in May that I was finally provided with the data requested—seven months after I asked the initial question. Why do we have to go to such lengths to pry information from the Home Office? Why do the Government withhold important data from public scrutiny? Where is the accountability and transparency in this situation?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

The right hon. Lady will have heard my previous answers about the importance of relying on published statistics that can be properly verified. Relying on information that turns out to have come from aggregated sources, which then transpire to be inaccurate, is a very dangerous route to go down.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

I think that the Minister has rather missed the point of what we are all saying. There is genuine shock across the House at the fact that it is Government policy to lock up victims of modern-day slavery as immigration offenders. What everybody is saying in different ways to the Minister is that that is unacceptable, and when is it going to stop?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

The hon. Gentleman might have missed the comment that I made at the start of this urgent question. Just because somebody is a victim of modern slavery or trafficking does not mean that they have immigration status in this country. It is important that we reflect on the fact that our first port of call is to offer a voluntary return, so that somebody may go back to their country of origin and receive support there. There are reintegration packages. We must not assume that we are best placed to assist those people who have been trafficked.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

A system which detains people to whom the state has a duty of protection, which regularly separates parents from their children, which results in people being denied access to food and medicine and living in appalling conditions, and which incarcerates people indefinitely who present no risk to public safety in the UK, is a system of which we should all be ashamed. Does the Minister accept that the current immigration detention system is a pillar of the hostile environment, and that the time has come for radical reform?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

I remind the hon. Lady that the detention estate is significantly smaller than it was when the last Labour Government left office. She is wrong to suggest that people in immigration removal centres are denied access to food and medicine. They have 24/7 access to healthcare and it is absolutely right that they must do so. We take the vulnerability of detainees incredibly seriously, which is why we commissioned Stephen Shaw to do his re-review last year and are implementing his recommendations. It is absolutely right that we have chosen to shrink the detention estate and that we are seeking to pilot schemes where individuals can be better supported in the community. We will continue down that road.