asked Her Majesty's Government:
Whether they have any proposals to introduce further measures to prevent suicide and self-harm at immigration detention centres.
My Lords, the Government take such issues very seriously. Every Immigration Service removal centre has measures in place to help identify and monitor those who are considered to be at risk of suicide and self-harm. Since 1989, there have been 12 deaths in immigration detention; seven have been investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman—one is continuing—and we consider carefully his reports and recommendations, particularly for lessons that may be learnt for the future.
My Lords, considering the number of deaths in immigration detention centres given by the noble Lord and the fact that the Chief Inspector of Prisons mentions suicide no fewer than 19 times in her most recent report on a detention centre, Harmondsworth, does the noble Lord not think that it is damaging to the credibility of the whole service when long delays take place in bringing them before coroners' courts? Are any steps included in the announcement made by the Solicitor-General last week concerning the reform of coroners' courts that will speed up the reports on the deaths in immigration detention centres and the consequent reports by the prison ombudsman, which always appear several months later?
Can the noble Lord also say whether he has read the article in the BMJ last week, which said that it was questionable whether effective psychiatric services could be provided in an environment of prolonged detention such as we have in the centres? Will he say what is being done to reduce the length of detention and thus the likelihood of self-harm and suicide?
My Lords, I should make it plain from the start that we are concerned about this area, and of course the reports to which the noble Lord has referred are important and telling. Steps are taken to ensure that we adopt the best practice. We are working carefully with the Prison Service to ensure that when it changes its procedures to a new system we adopt that new system as well. It is regrettable that cases take a time to come to coroners' courts, but the coroners' courts process is very rigorous, and it is only right that due process is seen to be operating properly. It means that the issues are considered thoroughly, which is to everyone's benefit, not least those who endure a period of time in Immigration Service detention.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that in some cases of unexpected deaths in detention centres the coroners' courts take between two and three years to hold an inquest? Is that not unfair on the relatives and the family, and does it not mean that it takes much longer than it should for the lessons to be learnt from those tragedies?
My Lords, as I made plain in my initial comment, it is regrettable that the cases take time to come before coroners' courts, but it is right too that thorough consideration is given and that proper reports are prepared for the coroners to consider. I do not have precise statistics on the periods of delay; there have thankfully been only 12 deaths in custody since 1989 of the sort to which we are referring. We take them very seriously, and we try to learn the lessons from every instance that has occurred in the detention centres. We care greatly to ensure that such occurrences do not happen in the future.
My Lords, will the Minister consider whether the problem might be alleviated by having adequate translation and interpretation facilities at the centres?
My Lords, the Immigration Service makes thorough use of translation services. It has access to a wide range of those services, and it takes expert advice. I am not aware that a lack of understanding of the sort to which the noble Viscount has referred has been a particular problem in any of these cases.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that chaplaincy arrangements in such detention centres are, despite the best efforts of many dedicated individuals, all too often profoundly inadequate, being done under the auspices of the curiously named "managers of religious affairs"? Does the Minister agree that a lack of proper professional and pastoral support for those who are made vulnerable in this situation, coupled with the tendency at times to move detainees between locations at indefensibly short intervals, simply aggravates the problem? Our attention has been drawn this afternoon to the tragic and appalling consequences of the lack of access to dependable long-term pastoral support.
My Lords, I take seriously what the most reverend Primate says in this instance. Clearly, we need to do more to address the important issue of chaplaincy services. It is an important issue, and I know what comfort they can bring. We will take urgent steps to review the issue that the most reverend Primate has drawn to our attention.
My Lords, perhaps I can press my noble friend further on the time delays that he talked about. He will appreciate that we are limited in the questions that we can ask about anything that is coming before a coroners' court, for reasons to do with the Companion. However, perhaps he can answer this question: why does it take three years before a coroners' court can deal with a matter in which an individual has been found hanging and is dead in an immigration centre? Surely even the most thorough scrutiny of the matter by the coroners' court does not take three years.
My Lords, I appreciate entirely the noble Lord's concern. I am as concerned as he is, and no doubt the Immigration Service is as well. We do our best to ensure that such cases are brought forward in an expedient and timely fashion, but I will go back and review the periods to which the noble Lord has drawn attention. I agree that we require that all of the cases take the shortest period possible, as that would be to everyone's satisfaction.
My Lords, would it be possible to consider carefully the policy of moving people frequently between detention centres? In addition to pastoral support, the welcome and compassionate help of the friends of various detention centres who extend the hand of friendship is crucial in preventing people being driven to despair. Will the Minister therefore look to see whether the Home Office policy of constantly moving people from one detention centre to another, breaking those crucial relationships, can be carefully reconsidered?
My Lords, we try to ensure that the movement of people from one detention centre to another is kept to a minimum. Most people do not spend a long period in detention centres, and the vast majority of those who do spend any time in them are there for up to only two or three weeks. It is not in anybody's interest that people are moved frequently. We try to ensure that all the rights to welfare and support services are plugged in. However, one has to accept that these are difficult cases involving some complex issues that we are dealing with. We try to act in everyone's interest.
My Lords, is the Minister particularly concerned at the state of mind of mothers in detention who have children under the age of three? Will he undertake to examine carefully why increasing numbers of such mothers are experiencing detention pending removal for purely administrative reasons and not to prevent their absconding?
My Lords, I know that the noble Earl has a great deal of experience in this. It is a tricky and complex area. It is not our desire to keep families in detention centres for great lengths of time. The information that I have suggests that most families spend only a reasonably short time in the centres. It is probably in some of those families' best interests that they are there. We try to keep families together. If we were to adopt a policy of removing children from the detention centres, they could be separated from their mothers in particular and their families in general. I do not think that that would be desirable at all. As we speak, as I understand it, only approximately 70 children are held in detention centres. I cannot say that that is an absolute figure, but we try to keep the number to a minimum. At the forefront of our minds in this policy, the welfare of the child must be the first consideration.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the gravity and urgency of the issue is underlined by the wider concern—central to our preoccupations in the House—about how we win the battle for hearts and minds in our efforts to contain global terrorism by reducing the number of anxious, alienated people on whom extremists can play? It is not simply a matter of our immigration policy and how it is administered; it has implications for that wider issue as well.
My Lords, I think that we as a country do our level best in tackling illegal immigration, which is at the core of the issue. My noble friend is right: we must be seen to treat people fairly and reasonably, and that is what our procedures aim to do. That is why at any one time we have, relatively speaking, a very small number of people in immigration detention. They are there for particular reasons, and that is quite right. Within the immigration detention estate we try to treat people fairly and properly and ensure that they have proper access to welfare and legal services so that their cases can be dealt with promptly, fairly and reasonably.