I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for providing us with this opportunity to debate this issue of concern over the Government’s actions and decisions on the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention. We agree with the concerns that the noble Lord expressed about how the Government are dealing with this matter and his proposals for addressing the situation.
As I understand it, it is meant to be Home Office policy that vulnerable people, which includes the victims of torture, should be detained only in exceptional circumstances, for example, if they are likely to offend or cause a public safety risk. However, that does not always appear to be the case, because in the year ending last March there were apparently well over 26,000 exceptional circumstance cases in immigration detention. Once again, as I understand it, these are not even people whose removal is imminent, since about half are released back into the community.
In his first review, Stephen Shaw said that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability. Half a dozen court cases in the last few years have drawn attention to the unacceptable treatment of detainees. I believe that the death rate among detainees in immigration detention has risen. Last year, 11 people died in custody.
The situation reached such a state that in 2015 the now Prime Minister, then Home Secretary, asked Stephen Shaw, the former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, to conduct a review of the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention. His report concluded that the safeguards for vulnerable people were inadequate, that immigration detention was used too often and for too long, and that the impact on mental health increases the longer detention continues. However, in implementing their adults at risk policy, the Government did not fully address the concerns raised by Stephen Shaw. Indeed, the Government’s detention centre rules and guidance on the detention of vulnerable persons seemed to increase the risk of harm. In its first 10 weeks of implementation, the Government’s adults at risk policy was applied incorrectly in almost 60% of 340 cases. Torture survivors continue to be detained and torture is one of the 10 indicators of risk in the adults at risk policy.
The guidance on the detention of vulnerable persons increases the burden of providing evidence on the vulnerable individual, since specific evidence will be needed that detention is likely to cause harm and the risk of harm in detention has to outweigh a range of immigration factors, such as the risk of absconding. In effect, it requires a person to prove that they will not abscond, which one would have thought was extremely difficult to do. The guidance already includes a broad range of immigration factors that can justify detention, even of torture survivors.
The result has been that the release rate, following a report designed to screen torture victims out of detention, has fallen considerably. In the third quarter of 2016, before the policy change, nearly 40% of those in the report in question were released. In the first quarter of 2018 that number had fallen to just 12.5%. Those figures were borne out in a 2017 High Court ruling in a case brought against the Home Office that the adults at risk policy unlawfully imprisons through immigration detention hundreds of victims of torture. The Home Office had previously decided to narrow the definition of torture so that it refers only to violence carried out by state actors. Apparently, it now excludes vulnerable survivors of non-state abuse, such as by ISIS, Hezbollah or the Taliban.
The Government have tabled the two statutory instruments we are discussing in response to the High Court’s ruling. However, the organisation that brought the successful case against the Home Office has said that the new torture definition is inappropriate and too complex for caseworkers and doctors to apply to specific cases, and that even when applied correctly the definition will exclude a group of victims of severe ill treatment who do not fall within the other indicators of risk.
As I understand it, the Government were actually asked by NGOs to await the publication of Stephen Shaw’s re-review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention to allow consideration of his findings before laying changes before Parliament. The Government have now had the Shaw re-review for some two months, but others have not been given a chance to consider his latest recommendations since, subject to the Minister saying otherwise, it has not been made available by the Government.
The Government’s argument for not allowing consideration to be given first to the findings of Stephen Shaw’s re-review appears to be that they could be in difficulty if they have not produced a revised adults at risk policy within 12 months of the October 2017 High Court judgment. But did the judgment specifically say that, and did it say that the Government should not await the outcome of any re-review before revising their adults at risk policy? The Government have had the Shaw re-review for two months. There is nearly a further four weeks to go before the Summer Recess, without taking account of the two-week short sitting in September. If this Government want to speed up processes, they have previously shown that they can do so. They could have, and still can, in this case and ensure that there is an opportunity to consider these two statutory instruments while they are still drafts in the light of the findings of Stephen Shaw’s re-review. Doing so might avoid the Government having another uncomfortable day in court.