Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:17 pm on 23 September 2022.

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Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:17, 23 September 2022

I am grateful to the House for allowing me another chance to raise the proposed reopening of Campsfield House immigration removal centre, after business was so mournfully changed two weeks ago.

I start by thanking the Minister for engaging with me and my office on this issue and answering my questions today. However, I am deeply disappointed that we have to debate this issue again at all. One of my first campaigns as a parliamentary candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon was the campaign to close Campsfield House. At the time, Campsfield was a detention centre for over 200 adult men facing deportation. My community fought tirelessly for over two decades to close the centre, and make no mistake: we are ready to fight again.

The Government are now planning to reopen the centre, with an expanded capacity of 400 beds at a cost of £227 million to the taxpayer. Our opposition comes primarily from concern over the welfare of the detainees, the impact that has on everyone in the community and also the cost efficiency of this plan in the immigration detention estate. It is expensive and does not achieve its aims. But most of all, it is cruel.

I want to start with detainees’ own descriptions of Campsfield. One man detained at the centre said:

“Some of us have been here for over 3 years with no prospect of removal or any evidence of future release. There is no justification whatsoever for detaining us for such a period of time. Our lives have been stalled without any hope of living a life, having a family or any future.”

Another former detainee talked about finding solace in music:

“I tried to create a kind of musical environment around me in Campsfield. It genuinely helped me so I didn’t get too depressed. It saved me from self-harm and suicide, which I saw many people try. It made me feel like I was reaching out beyond the fences. Sometimes I think it’s ok to escape reality in that kind of a place because the reality there can feel like you are living in a nightmare.”

The nightmare of immigration detention was made much worse by failures in processes and procedures. In 2013, I uncovered that a child was being held at Campsfield. A boy was held there for between two and three months. He would have been the only child in an adult-dominated, guarded facility with barbed wire fences. He would not have been allowed to go to school and he would have been unable to interact with other children or lead any sort of normal childhood. We know very little about him other than that he was between 12 and 16. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that that was and is totally unacceptable—but he was not the only one. Another boy was incorrectly identified by social services as being an adult and was held at Campsfield for 62 days. He was 16. The chief inspector of prisons said that he

“was held by mistake and should never have been detained”.

That is fine, but there is only one way to ensure that such an atrocity does not happen again at Campsfield, and that is simply not to reopen it.

Accidental child detention is not the only concern. As detainees faced unacceptable conditions, tensions often boiled over into aggression and protest. There were riots, fires and escapes. Detainees completed suicide. One asylum seeker completed suicide at Campsfield after being detained for six months and denied bail three times. He was only 18 years old.

As hon. Members might imagine, all that causes enormous distress to the local community. It is important to note that detention has an enormous effect far beyond the fences. A volunteer visitor service was set up by local people and became the wonderful organisation Asylum Welcome, which does fantastic work to support asylum seekers across Oxfordshire and plays a pivotal role in welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

One former visitor said:

“The men detained at Campsfield House were representative of a broad range of humanity—not all were angels, although most that I spoke to were very decent people. But they were all human and therefore deserving of their human rights, and none deserved to be locked away without having committed a crime”.

That is critical: most of the detainees who passed through Campsfield were true asylum seekers—they were not criminals. The Home Office claims that Campsfield is necessary to hold foreign national offenders, yet in 2017 an average of only 98 were held at Campsfield at any one time. Why do we need a 400-bed centre away from the main airports?

Immigration detention is described by the Home Office as having a “limited, but crucial role” in helping to control our borders. There are a stringent set of circumstances in which the Government have the power to detain an individual: to enable removal from the country; to establish the basis of someone’s identity or claim; and when the Home Office suspects that someone will not comply with immigration bail. The Home Office’s own guidance states:

“Detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary.”

On the face of it, that is sensible. I make it clear to the Minister that I can see the need for a small number of detention places, very close to airports, for people to be held for an extremely short time. That is not in question. But what is happening now, with the expansion of the detention estate, starting with Campsfield, shows that there is a failure in that system.

When the chief inspector of prisons carried out a final inspection before Campsfield closed, the average length of detention was 55 days, but some men were held for “excessive periods”. The longest detention in that year was one year and five months, but we have heard from detainees who were held for more than three years. Many detainees are not held in one centre but are deported, released, or moved around the system. They are passed from one centre to another and not allowed to form relationships. An MP might advocate for them, but then they move and the MP cannot do so anymore. They do not have consistent caseworkers. That is cruel, but it is also incredibly costly.

The cost element needs to be explored. When Campsfield was open, it cost £86 a day to detain someone there, but costs have increased. In the first quarter of 2022, the average cost of holding someone in detention was £107 per day. The more individuals we detain, and the longer we keep them behind bars, the more costly it is. As the Minister may well remember, we are in a cost of living crisis. Families are struggling to afford food; pensioners cannot afford to turn their heating on. We heard this morning the Chancellor’s grand plan to tackle the economic crisis—I am sorry, but the way to solve this is not to keep detaining people at enormous cost, it is instead to invest that money in a system to improve processing times.

Taxpayers deserve a Home Office that does its job properly. Figures from the House of Commons Library reveal that the same amount of money that the Government will be spending on re-opening Campsfield could be used to fund more than 1,000 asylum caseworkers, who are desperately needed to process that backlog. Why are we not investing that money in staff? How many new caseworkers do the Government intend to bring into the system, or are they just accepting failure?

We raised concerns at the time about the welfare of those in Campsfield, but we must also understand why there has been this shift in policy. That is why this debate is so important. Campsfield was shut in 2017 off the back of the Stephen Shaw review, which concluded that the “direction of travel” for the detention estate in the UK should be “downwards”, both for reasons of welfare and for better use of public money. The Home Office agreed with that recommendation and made the decision to reduce the immigration detention estate, aiming to reduce it by almost 40%. As part of that Campsfield closed, but the Government have now changed direction and numbers are climbing to the same levels that we saw before 2019. Not only are they re-opening Campsfield, but there is another detention centre at Haslar in Hampshire, both with more beds than they had before. That is a clear, active change of policy, and we have not had an explanation for what has changed. Which recommendations in the Shaw review does the Minister now not accept?

How does that change of policy fulfil the Government’s legal obligations? There have been legal challenges on human rights grounds for those held on the detention estate, but most of those people—and this is where we must end—are not criminals. Most of those people are true asylum seekers, and 80% of those who try to claim asylum in the UK are granted asylum. When we combine the fact that there are a small number of foreign prisoners who should be detained and supported, and that 80% of those who try to claim asylum are granted asylum, I simply ask the Minister why the Government are doing this, and whether they will reverse the decision to reopen Campsfield House.