Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations and the Detention Centre (Amendment) Rules 2018 - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 27th June 2018.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 6:00 pm, 27th June 2018

My Lords, I will not beat about the bush. The purpose of my regret Motion is to ask the Minister whether the Government will consider the immediate withdrawal of these two statutory instruments before they can do harm to certain vulnerable individuals, and until a number of preconditions, of which the Home Office has been made aware and which I will outline, have been completed. Statutory Instrument 410 introduces the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2016, enacting the draft updated guidance contained in the Immigration Act 2016. Statutory Instrument 411 introduces a new definition of torture into detention centre rules. Together, they provide the statutory footing for the adults at risk framework, introduced in September 2016 to improve safeguards for people who are particularly vulnerable to harm in detention. As neither instrument is due to come into force until 2 July, there is still time to withdraw them and initiate the alternative action that I will put forward. If this appears a little tight on timing, I should explain that I tabled my Motion some weeks ago, but its date was confirmed by the Whips’ Office only last week. The remainder of my contribution will be an explanation of why I am making this request.

In a recent debate on the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, I mentioned that the Independent Asylum Commission, which reported in 2009 and of which I was a commissioner, characterised the attitude of the Home Office to any asylum seeker, or indeed any outside advice or information, as a “culture of disbelief”. This was triggered by our hearing of a Sri Lankan victim of torture whose case was not believed by the Home Office, which resulted in him being sent back to Sri Lanka, where he was tortured again. Luckily, when he returned here for the second time, his case was believed.

In 2015, in response to growing concerns about the use of immigration detention, the Home Office commissioned Stephen Shaw to carry out a review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention. In his report he highlighted the lack of safeguards for vulnerable detainees and recommended a drastic reduction in the use of immigration detention. The Immigration Minister’s broad acceptance of Shaw’s recommendations was given statutory footing in Section 59 of the Immigration Act 2016, the purpose of which is to ensure that all individuals, particularly those who are vulnerable to harm if detained, are identified and protected. In the event, neither statutory instrument, nor the adults at risk guidance, delivers that purpose.

The proposed definition of torture is far too complex to be easily applied by Home Office caseworkers and doctors in the identification of vulnerable persons, and its concepts are clinically nebulous. For example, it invites doctors to make subjective judgments as to whether a victim did enough to resist ill-treatment or whether he or she was sufficiently robust to cope with it. Extracting the necessary information will require intrusive investigation of a vulnerable person that far exceeds the safeguards and the standard of proof that applies. In particular, the concept of powerlessness is ill suited to the determination of vulnerability to harm in detention, as both doctors and caseworkers will struggle to form a consistent and fair interpretation of such complexity.

The definition in SI 2018/411 seeks to distinguish between torture and ill treatment. That is an important distinction in international law, but entirely unnecessary and inappropriate when identifying those vulnerable to harm in detention. Even when applied correctly, the definition will exclude a whole cohort of victims of severe ill treatment who do not fall within the indicators of risk. These include victims of interpersonal violence on grounds of race, ethnicity, sexuality, tribal groups, blood feuds or clan origins, none of which presents an obvious situation of powerlessness in relation to the perpetrators of violence.

In fact, the adults at risk guidance has raised the threshold for a decision not to detain by increasing the evidentiary burden on vulnerable individuals. Under the previous policy, and not subject to the culture of disbelief, victims of torture needed only to show independent evidence of their history of torture in order to be considered unsuitable for detention, except in very exceptional circumstances. The new guidance, however, includes an additional requirement to present specific evidence that detention is likely to cause harm in order for release to be seriously considered. That evidence is extremely hard to come by before harm has actually occurred. By introducing a much wider range of immigration factors that have to be considered before a decision not to detain can be justified, the guidance has also weakened the protection offered to vulnerable people.

A number of NGOs working with immigrants immediately raised serious concerns about the adults at risk guidance, including the changes to the definition of torture, which previously had been based on case law and was not defined in government policy. This had been proved to be wide enough to include victims of torture, who, evidence showed, were particularly vulnerable to harm in detention. The charity Medical Justice and seven detainees challenged these changes in the High Court, the judge finding them to be unlawful and ordering their suspension. In addition, the judge instructed the Home Office to review and reissue the policy in a reasonable time, but did not place any obligation on the Home Secretary to define torture in the updated policy.

In parallel with this, Stephen Shaw carried out a second review—this time, of the Government’s progress towards fulfilling the recommendations in his first—which he delivered to the Home Secretary at the end of April this year. Despite promises that it would be published by the end of this month, it has still not appeared. Indeed, the Minister, who had clearly seen it when he responded to a recent Early Day Motion on the subject in another place, did not disclose any of its conclusions or recommendations to those taking part in the debate, which left them in the dark as to what he was saying. He also back-pedalled on the promised date of the report’s publication. Therefore, I ask the Minister to clarify the situation regarding the date of publication of Shaw’s second report and to tell the House when we can expect both it and the Government’s response.

The statutory instruments were laid before Parliament on 27 March this year, following a wholly inadequate and expedited consultation on the new definition of torture with a limited group of NGOs. They cautioned that no further definition should be considered in isolation from the necessary revisions to other elements of the safeguards, such as detention centre rules and the adults at risk guidance. They also asked the Home Office to await publication of the second Shaw review, to allow consideration of his findings before laying changes before Parliament. Their cautions were studiously ignored. I cannot help contrasting the Home Office’s unseemly rush to publish what is so clearly flawed with its unseemly procrastination over the short-term detention rules, taking over twice as long as World War II to publish in 2018 something originally promised in 2006. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, whose letter on immigration of 28 March I co-signed, was also studiously ignored when he proposed the same action.

So what to do about this mess? As I put to the Minister at the start of my contribution, the statutory instruments should be immediately withdrawn and any changes to existing policy regarding the safeguarding of victims of torture or ill treatment postponed until after the publication of the second Shaw review, and subject to a proper consultation, subject to government guidelines. There is no need to define torture in either the adults at risk guidance or detention centre rules, so the proposed definition should be withdrawn from both. The broad range of immigration factors used to justify detention of those identified as being particularly vulnerable to harm should be replaced by a return to the previous threshold of very exceptional circumstances. There should be no need for a victim of torture or ill treatment identified as likely to be vulnerable to harm in detention to demonstrate any further why he or she is likely to suffer harm in detention. I beg to move.