My Lords, we have heard some extremely powerful speeches in today's debate, especially on the concerns about overlong detention. Some of the individual cases that we have heard about strike the humanity of all noble Lords—to take a phrase from my noble friend Lord Judd. We certainly understand the reasons for the amendment and agree that it should always be the objective to reduce the length of time that any individual is in detention. I would hope that in the vast majority of cases it is possible to deal quickly with the process for individuals or find alternatives to detention. As we have heard, that is in the interests of the individuals detained—we have heard that there are 30,000 detainees each year—and in the interests of the taxpayer.
The comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and my noble friends Lord Judd and Lady Lister, led to a greater concern about the regime of detention centres and the way in which rules are enforced. We agree that immigration rules must always be enforced, but the responsibility of government is to ensure that all detainees are treated humanely, with high standards and safeguards in place. As this amendment seeks to draw attention to, the process of administrating and assessing claims or arranging deportation should be undertaken as quickly and as fairly as possible.
Long delays and long periods of detention bring with them other problems. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the research undertaken by Women for Refugee Women which illustrates concerns about access to healthcare and support for physical and mental health. Only this week, we heard the extremely sad and distressing account of a woman of 40 who died at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. I was pleased that yesterday the Minister announced an investigation and review into that sad and tragic death.
Will the Minister also confirm that there will be a full investigation into the reports of sexual abuse of vulnerable women at Yarl’s Wood by Serco employees? What action has been taken as a result of the report of the inspector who said that abused and trafficked women are being held at Yarl’s Wood? The chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee in the other place said yesterday that Serco has confirmed to him that in the past few years seven employees had been dismissed for inappropriate behaviour. The Minister will also be aware that there are ongoing police investigations and criminal proceedings, although Nick Hardwick, in his most recent inspection report, said that—I paraphrase—good progress was being made but more needs to be done. There are real concerns that have been illustrated across the House today.
However, that is not the amendment before us today. This is specifically about the length of time an individual can be held, and we heard examples of overlong detention from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd. My concern about the amendment is that it is slightly clumsily worded and does not necessarily achieve what it sets out to do. It has an arbitrary time limit of 60 days. Within that, there is no risk assessment of the issues of whether or not someone is likely to abscond or any assessment of the reasons for the delay.
More importantly, and this gives us the most concern, foreign criminals who have completed their sentences may be detained while they await deportation. That may take a little longer than 60 days to resolve—to get all the paperwork in place, ensure that they are treated properly and make an assessment of where they can be deported to. We would then be faced with the prospect of releasing those who do not have a legal right to be in the UK and who have become convicted offenders who have received a custodial sentence. That could lead to complications in the paperwork or the complex nature of the deportation. If the amendment were passed today as it stands, we could have a difficulty with former offenders who have been held in detention prior to deportation.
Unless I have missed something, there is no process in the amendment to allow for any extension in any circumstances, whether for a genuine risk of absconding or because of deportation for previous criminal offences. There is no qualification at all in the amendment as it stands. Having said that, I think it was my noble friend Lord Judd who used a phrase—which is well worth this House returning to on a number of occasions—about the humanity and the principle of the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred to the amendment being a “stimulus”, because the Government should be aiming to achieve far shorter detention periods.
I fully appreciate that this amendment could focus the Government’s attention on being far more efficient in dealing with cases but there is a risk here, as I have outlined, and I am not convinced that the Government would necessarily take note in that way. I would like to hear some assurances from the Minister that action will be taken to deal with any abuses of the rules and regime in any detention centre. I hope that he will not dismiss the objectives of the amendment before us today because, whatever flaws there may be in the detail, this amendment raises issues of serious concern across your Lordships’ House, as he has heard, that have to be addressed. Although we cannot support this amendment as it stands, we would hope for a very sympathetic and helpful response from the Minister.