In paragraph 16 of Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 after subsection (4) insert —
‘(5) A person may not be detained under this paragraph if they are a member of one or more of the following groups of person—
(a) Pregnant women;
(b) Victims of trafficking;
(c) Victims of torture;
(d) Victims of sexual violence;
(e) Any other group as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State.”—(Paul Blomfield.)
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Time limit on detention—
“(5) ubject to regulations under subsection (6), a person detained under this paragraph must be released on bail in accordance with Schedule 5 to the Immigration Act 2016 after no later than the twenty-eighth day following that on which the person was detained.
(6) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision to vary by category of person the time limit under subsection (5).”
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I am very pleased to be speaking to new clauses 1 and 3, were tabled by the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller), a Conservative. I was delighted to have the opportunity to add my name to them so that they can be debated by the Committee. I think we are moving into new territory here, and I hope that the cross-party consensus that is reflected in my decision to support the clauses will be reflected in our deliberations.
In the previous Parliament I was pleased to serve as vice-chair of an inquiry into immigration detention on a panel that included the hon. Member for Bedford, along with other colleagues from the Government Benches, including the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and a former Conservative Cabinet Member, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman). Opposition Members were in a minority on the inquiry panel, which drew parliamentarians from both Houses, including many with huge experience such as a retired Law Lord and a former chief inspector of prisons.
The inquiry was brought together by the all-party group on migration and the all-party group on refugees. Our recommendations, which were prepared after eight months of deliberation, included the limits on detention contained in new clauses 1 and 3. The recommendations were endorsed by the House of Commons on 10 September. The new clauses therefore build on the work of the inquiry and provide expression for the will of the House by introducing limits on indefinite immigration detention. This is not a particularly controversial proposal: we are unusual in this country in having no limit on administrative detention for immigration purposes.
Sadly, we have become increasingly dependent on detention, and that has been the case under successive Governments. This is not a party political point. Detention takes place in immigration removal centres, and the clue for their purpose should be in the name. They are intended for short-term stays, but we have become increasingly reliant on them, and as the use of detention has expanded rapidly over the last two decades, so has the size of the estate. In 1993, there were 250 detention places available in the UK; by 2009 the number had risen to 2,665, and by the beginning of this year it had risen to 3,915. The number of people entering detention in the year to June 2015 was just over 32,000—up 10% on the previous year. In contrast, Sweden, a country that in most years receives something like three times the number of asylum applications—I accept that immigration detention does not simply relate to asylum; nevertheless, there are much larger demands on that much smaller country—has 2,893 places, while Germany has just over 4,300.
Home Office policy, which is a good starting point, states that
“detention must be used sparingly”.
The reality is clearly different. Members will be aware of a number of high-profile incidents in immigration removal centres, including deaths and allegations of sexual assault. That was reflected in the evidence heard by our inquiry. In our first oral evidence session, we heard from non-governmental organisations and medical experts. Most powerfully, we heard from people who were at that time in detention centres via a phone link to immigration removal centres.
One young man from a disputed territory on the Cameroon-Nigeria border told us his story. He said that he had been trafficked to Hungary as a 16-year-old, where he was beaten, raped and tortured. He managed to escape and eventually made his way to Heathrow using a false passport, which was discovered on his arrival. He was then detained. We asked him how long he had been detained for. He told us that he had been detained for three years in the immigration removal centre. His detention conflicts with three stated aims of the Home Office: first, that those who have been trafficked should not be detained; secondly, that those who have been tortured should not be detained; and, thirdly, that detention should be for the shortest possible period.
New clause 1 seeks to put those Government aims on torture and trafficking in the Bill, and to add victims of sexual violence and pregnant women to the category of people not to be detained. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, following an unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre earlier this year, said to the Government:
“Procedures to ensure the most vulnerable women are never detained should be strengthened and managers held accountable for ensuring they are applied consistently.”
Following a case that was reported on 6 October, I understand that the Home Office is reviewing its policy on the detention of pregnant asylum seekers. I would welcome the Minister’s clarification on where that review stands.
New clause 3 seeks to deal with the wider issue of indefinite detention, the impact of which was a constant theme of our inquiry, and about which we received some striking testimony. Time and again we were told that detention was worse than prison. Initially, a number of us were puzzled by that, because we were not talking about the criminal justice system—many of those people demonstrate in due course that they have the right to be here—but those who were detained said that people in prison at least know when they will get out. As one former detainee told us:
“The uncertainty is hard to bear. Your life is in limbo. No one tells you anything about how long you will stay or if you are going to get deported.”
Medical experts told us that the sense of being in limbo and the hopelessness and despair leads to deteriorating mental health. One told us that those who are detained for more than 30 days have significantly higher mental health problems.
However, it is not just the impact on those who are detained. A team leader at the prisons inspectorate told us that the lack of a time limit encourages poor caseworking and lazy procedures in the Home Office. He told us that one quarter of the cases of prolonged detention that the prisons inspectorate had considered were the result of inefficient casework. That is not because it was inappropriate for people to be released. Despite being called immigration removal workers, we found—this is an important point—that most people who leave detention do so for reasons other than being removed from the UK. According to the latest statistics produced by the Government, more than half the detainees are released back into the UK. The system is therefore not only bad for those involved, but expensive and a waste of public resources, at a time when the Chancellor is looking for savings. Detaining someone costs £36,000 per year. Alternatives to detention, proved to be more effective in other countries, are significantly cheaper; so alternatives driven by imposing such a limit would save taxpayers’ money.
The recommendation to set a maximum time limit in statute, which new clause 3 would introduce, would not simply right the wrong of indefinite detention, but change the culture endemic in the system. By doing so, it would meet the aims of the Home Office’s own guidance, which is about detention being used more sparingly and only as a genuine last resort to effect removal. The proposed limit of 28 days reflects best practice in other countries and is workable for the Home Office, given that in the first three quarters of 2014 only 37% were detained for longer. It also reflects evidence about the mental health impact on those detained for more than a month.
Deprivation of liberty should never be a decision taken lightly or arbitrarily. Decisions are taken by relatively junior officials, with no automatic judicial oversight. With no time limit in place, it has become too easy for people to be detained for months on end, with no meaningful way to challenge their continued detention. The introduction of a time limit and the reduction in reliance on detention represents a significant change—it is in line with what happens in other countries, but it is a significant change for us. Therefore, in order to detain fewer people for shorter periods of time, the Government will need to introduce a much wider range of community-based alternatives.
In the report of the inquiry panel that I mentioned earlier, we gave a number of examples of such alternatives from other places, including the United States—we are not talking about countries that might be perceived as a soft touch. Indeed, Australia, a country whose immigration system is often held up as an example of toughness, has also developed constructive, effective and much cheaper alternatives to detention. Those alternatives allow people to remain in communities while their cases are being resolved, including when making arrangements to leave the country. Not only are the alternatives better; as I have said, they also cost less and are more successful, because they have higher compliance rates in terms of people’s willingness to return.
There is a recent UK precedent. When the coalition Government committed to reduce the number of children detained, they introduced the family returns process. The House of Commons Library described its design as
“to encourage refused families to comply with instructions to depart from the UK at an earlier stage, such as by giving them more control over the circumstances of their departure”— and it worked. There has been a dramatic fall in the number of children detained, and the Home Office’s own evaluation of the scheme found most families compliant with the process, with no increase in absconding.
I know that the Government share many of the concerns about immigration detention. I guess that is why in February they commissioned Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, to conduct
“an independent review of policies and procedures affecting the welfare of those held in immigration removal centres”.
I understand that the Government received the Shaw report some time ago. I hope that the Minister can tell us when he intends to publish it and the Government’s response to it. However, that report will not cover the central issue of a statutory limit on detention, unless thinking is already moving on and he can tell us otherwise.
The importance of the issue was also made clear by Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, following the unexpected inspection of Yarl’s Wood that I mentioned earlier. He said:
“Other well respected bodies have recently called for time limits on administrative detention. In my view, the rigorously evidenced concerns we have identified in this inspection provide strong support for these calls, and a strict time limit must now be introduced on the length of time that anyone can be administratively detained.”
In his words, a time limit “must be introduced”.
We are proposing an end to indefinite detention not simply because it would be more just and humane but because it would be less expensive and more effective in securing compliance, which Members on both sides of the House wish to see. Therefore, I hope the Government can accept the new clauses.
They say that a country should be judged based on how it treats the most vulnerable, but the way that we have treated people who are attempting to gain asylum into the UK has been, at times, shocking.
The UK is the only country in Europe that uses detention with no official end date and that should shame us all. I am sure that I am not the only one who has been appalled at some of the detention stories that we have read about or seen on television. In particular, “The Glasgow Girls” served as a harrowing reminder of the cruelty that the UK’s detention policy brings about. Even though the policy of detaining children was ended in 2010, the Scottish Refugee Council has highlighted that children are wrongly assessed as being of adult age and therefore are still being detained. The council says:
“A small number of children are still detained at the end of the asylum process, after their case is heard by an independent panel, in Cedar’s Pre-Departure Accommodation. It is run by private companies…with welfare services provided by Children’s Charity Barnardo’s. This ‘open’ facility is designed as a last resort, before families are removed to their countries of origin. But there are still concerns about the affect its use has on children—many of whom are sent from Scotland on their way to their countries of origin.
In addition, some children who have been wrongly age assessed as adults find themselves detained, often for long periods of time.”
I hope that the new clause serves as a catalyst for further investigation, so that these young people/children are treated with dignity and respect, and are not detained full-stop. Westminster might still favour the policy of detention, but I think that we all agree that detaining young people is cruel and inhumane, and I ask the Immigration Minister to look further at this issue.
The case of Souleymane, who was detained for three and a half years, was highlighted in the detention inquiry report, and it serves as another cruel reminder of the policy of detention. There is no excuse for such a long period of detention. The case highlighted that detainees were being transported from one detention centre to another. The length of time that Souleymane spent in detention had an obvious and significant impact on his mental health, and I must ask, is that something that we are proud of?
New clause 3 does not go far enough, in that it has a caveat that I do not agree with. Nevertheless, it is a massive step in the right direction. Again, I want to see the ending of the policy of detention, as it is not a sign of the caring and compassionate country that I recognise the UK to be. The new clause will leave the provision for the Home Secretary to detain someone beyond 28 days by varying the time limit by category of person. In and of itself, it does not prevent cases such as that of Souleymane from happening again, as it hands the Home Secretary a wide discretionary power to overcome the 28-day obstacle.
Also, the parliamentary inquiry report suggested that the longer an individual is detained, the less likely it is that they will be removed from the UK. For example, the report found that, of the 178 people who have been detained for 12 months or more, 57% of them were ultimately released.
In talking about detention, I must use this opportunity to praise the work of the Scottish Refugee Council and other community-based organisations and groups that support asylum seekers on the frontline. Regardless of our political views, we should extend a debt of gratitude to those groups for the fantastic and at times difficult work that they do. The Bill and this provision in particular will have a significant impact on their work, and it is important that we support them when the Bill becomes law. Therefore, I ask the Immigration Minister to take time to meet groups such as the Scottish Refugee Council to learn more about the issues that they face, and to find out what support they need to perform their important jobs.
Detaining someone for any period of time is not something that we should be proud of. These detention centres are a symbol of the cruel approach that successive UK Governments have adopted with regard to asylum seekers. That is why we in the SNP do not think that the new clause goes far enough. The SNP policy on asylum seekers is more progressive. We want asylum seekers to have the chance to work, earn a living, pay tax and contribute to the community while they are waiting for a decision to be made on their application. Economically that makes sense but, more importantly, it is the right and moral thing to do.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central’s new clause and I pay tribute to the part he played in the report to which he referred. As he said, the report was powerful and strong recommendations were made. The key recommendations from the report were, first, that there should a limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can held in immigration detention. Secondly, detention is currently used disproportionately frequently, resulting in too many instances of detention. The presumption, in theory and practice, should be in favour of community-based resolutions and against detention. Thirdly, decisions to detain should be very rare and detention should be for the shortest possible time and only to effect removal. Fourthly, the Government should learn from international best practice and introduce a much wider range of alternatives to detention than are currently used in the UK.
This is a real concern, a growing concern and a cross-party concern. I know that the Stephen Shaw work has been done and there is a report. I think that that mainly touches on welfare, but I will be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong. The new clause is important because it goes well beyond welfare issues; it is a point of real principle. In that spirit I support it.
In the immigration debate that took place in the Chamber, I spoke about a child who had been in detention. I know that the policy, notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, is no longer to detain children, but I want to repeat what I said about that child, and I will explain why.
I talked about a 10-year-old boy who was detained with his mother in Dungavel in Scotland and was then moved to Yarl’s Wood. He lost 10 lb in three weeks and lost so much hope that he turned to his mother one day and whispered, “It would be easier if we died. Mummy, please can we die?” I appreciate that there is not a person in this room—I have absolutely no doubt—who, if that child were standing in front of them, would not do whatever they could to help that child. This was somebody I knew pretty well.
Okay, so we only detain adults now, but I am not willing to believe that there is any Member here who, if they had a woman standing in front of them who had been through so much trouble to get here, who was a victim of sexual violence, and they could make the decision about that one person standing there, having heard her story, would not help her. I do not believe that any of us would not use the key that we have to free her from detention if we were able to do it. They are not standing in front of us now, but we are the ones who hold the key to whether those people suffer in the way that many hon. Members have described. That mother wanted to comfort her child. She wanted to reassure her child that it would be over soon, that “this will be happening” in two weeks or one week, three days or three months or whatever, but she could not. She could not reassure herself because she had no idea how long they were going to be there.
I think that the worst thing for people is not having a clue when or where it is going to end. I visited a family in Dungavel a number of years ago, as an elected Member of the Scottish Parliament and I felt intimidated. I felt intimidated by the surroundings and the uniforms, by the big jangle of the keys, by the prison-like atmosphere and the fact that I was fingerprinted. I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament and they fingerprinted me as I went in. If I felt intimidated, what must it feel like to somebody who has absolutely no control over their life, and has not had any for a long time because they have had to flee their country and ask for help in a foreign country? I cannot imagine it.
I pay tribute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North has done, to the organisations that support people in detention. I particularly encourage the organisations that demonstrate outside such facilities to continue to do so, because it makes a big difference to the people inside. There was a demonstration at Dungavel a couple of weeks ago. I know people who went, although I was unable to attend.
The hon. Lady is making her case and has indicated that she thinks that the measures do not go far enough. Just so that I understand, does she believe that there is a role at all for detention in immigration removal?
As a last resort. I have never said that we should never detain anybody, but detention is to be used as a last resort. In fact, I think the Minister himself said that the power to detain should be exercised only sparingly and for the shortest possible time. I do not know whether that is the case, but it should be the case.
If it is for the shortest possible time, that is a good argument for having a time limit in statute. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, who said—I think the report of the inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK also made the point—that, without a time limit, the casework will suffer. We are all human beings. I am a deadlines kind of person; I do things at the deadline. I would love to be the kind of person who does things in preparation for a deadline, and I am always telling myself that I will be that kind of person, but we are all human and we all work to deadlines. If there is no deadline, of course things take a lot longer.
I also wanted to say something about the categories of people who could not be detained if the new clause were accepted. They would include people who have been trafficked. In an earlier sitting, several Conservative Members and I had a debate about people allowing themselves to be trafficked. I was pretty upset at the time, as were a lot of people, but I realise now how that misunderstanding came about: it is because there is an awful lot of talk in the media about people trafficking when it is actually people smuggling. I accept that is not the fault of the people who pick up the term, but the language that we use is extremely important. If we all accept that trafficking involves coercion and is done against the person’s will and that those people have effectively been kidnapped, I hope that we can accept that detention is an absolutely dreadful experience for them and affects them even more severely. I certainly support not detaining that group of people.
On the assisted returns project, I reassure the Minister, as I have said, that I understand that sometimes people must be detained. I also understand that sometimes they must be deported—removed from this country—because not everyone is entitled to live here. If that is done, it is far better to continue with schemes such as the family returns project. I have constituents and friends who do not want to return because their memories are of the country that they came from as it was when they left. All they need is reassurance from somebody that they trust that it is not the way it was, that it is safe for them and that there will be provisions and protections for them.
Most people who come to live in this country do so in such circumstances. They do not come here because they desperately want to live here. Most people would rather live in the country that they have come from. In leaving, they are leaving their family, their friends, their neighbourhood and the school that they went to. Most people do not want to give that up. Sometimes they need reassurance that they will be protected and that life is very different in the country that we are returning them to. That is why the approach must not be to criminalise them, lock them up or refuse to tell them when or if they will be leaving. The approach should be more humane than that, and should be about working with them rather than against them.
I will speak very briefly to the new clauses, because they seem logical and non-contentious. I am particularly pleased that they have been tabled in a cross-party manner and that they were developed from a cross-party inquiry by the all-party groups on refugees and on migration. They build on existing legislation, such the Modern Slavery Act 2015; that is particularly true of new clause 1.
We whizzed through all the new clauses and amendments, so I want to read the explanatory statement to new clause 1, which
“would provide that pregnant women, victims of trafficking, torture and sexual violence, and any other group prescribed by the Secretary of State, may not be detained pending an examination or decision by an immigration officer.”
I hope that the groups prescribed by the Secretary of State would include vulnerable adults, particularly those with a learning age that is deemed to be under 18.
I want to focus on women, pre-empting some of the arguments that Ministers might make against the measures, particularly new clause 1. The organisation Women For Refugee Women has said that 72% of asylum seekers have been raped as part of the persecution that they are fleeing, and almost all have been victims of gender-related persecution. I ask the Minister to consider that. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees detention guidelines state:
“Victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence also need special attention and should generally not be detained.”
I would also like to draw to the Committee’s attention the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is working hard to end sexual violence in conflict by protecting survivors and actively prosecuting perpetrators. It seems to me irrational that while the FCO is working so hard and courageously, and receiving great commendation internationally for doing so, the Bill will effectively re-traumatise victims who have crossed borders to find safety in this country. It is also my understanding that the Home Office’s policy is to detain pregnant women only in exceptional circumstances. I therefore ask Ministers to give serious consideration to new clauses 1 and 3.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on an area of policy that is challenging and difficult. I say that because a significant proportion of those in immigration removal centres will be foreign national offenders. There has been a lot of discussion about asylum claimants, but if someone has made a claim for asylum, they should be receiving humanitarian protection. Hon. Members will equally know, for example, that we have suspended the detained fast track—a decision I took—to ensure that appropriate issues about vulnerability can be properly reflected in the arrangements.
There is a real challenge, about which I caution hon. Members, because if the official Opposition vote for new clause 3, they will be voting for a change of their policy. I note that exclusions were previously advanced for foreign national offenders and other groups, in recognition of some of the complexities and other challenges in this matter. People will seek to frustrate their removal at all costs. That is why, regrettably, there will always be a need for some level of immigration detention for when individuals fail to comply with requirements to leave the UK, seek to frustrate their removal or seek at times to use time limits as a means to string things out, because they know that they may gain advantage. Having said all of that, we are clear that detention should be used sparingly and only as a last resort.
We take our duty of care to those who are in detention seriously, for example, through healthcare and other provision. I recognise the reports on the issue of vulnerability to which I will come on, but there are many people working in immigration removal centres day in, day out, doing a tough and challenging job. In commenting on a number of the points made today, I put on the record my appreciation for those who are doing that tough job that supports our immigration centres and seeks to ensure that detainees are treated in a just, fair, appropriate and dignified way.
I underline that alternatives to detention should be used where possible, and I recognise that more can be done. The Bill and its new powers are part of the wider work to ensure that the Home Office has the right measures to manage individuals who are not detained and to ensure that they leave the UK when they no longer have any rights to be here. I continue to give great thought to ensuring that we provide an effective system that delivers value for money and seeks the departure or removal of increasing numbers of people who have no right to be here. There is the balance between enforced removal and encouraged or facilitated departure and we have already debated that broadly in respect of family groups.
New clause 1 would introduce a statutory prohibition on the detention of pregnant women and victims of torture, trafficking and sexual abuse. I note the generous way in which the hon. Member for Sheffield Central sought to recognise that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) who, on Second Reading, tabled an amendment on this issue. Along with many other Members of the House, he is tireless in his work on issues of immigration and detention and takes such matters seriously. I pay tribute to the former Member, Sarah Teather, who chaired the all-party group on refugees. While we did not always see eye to eye, I never doubted her focus and determination to ensure that the issues were considered by the House. I know that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central was part of that all-party group and continues that work.
I can tell the Committee that we take such issues extraordinarily seriously and they weigh heavily on Ministers when we seek to deprive people of their liberty. Therefore, in our approach we seek to ensure that detention is part of a removals process, which at times has to take into account issues of public protection as well. The issues of safeguarding and vulnerability are very much in our minds and that is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commissioned Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, to undertake an in-depth review of how the Home Office treats vulnerable people who are detained. As I indicated, that is why I suspended the detained fast track, because I could not be satisfied that safeguards were operating effectively.
The Committee will be aware that we have received Mr Shaw’s report and are considering our response to that important issue. We are actively considering the report’s recommendations and we will come back to the House in due course to report on that.
I think that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central was seeking a timeframe from me. We are not seeking to delay; we are considering those issues carefully, but I want to get it right and come back to the House with an appropriate response that recognises the thorough work that Mr Shaw has undertaken.
I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that I wish to ensure that we publish the report and the Government’s response before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament. Equally, I want to ensure that we come back when we can. It is important that we reflect properly on the report and the recommendations, which we are actively doing.
During our debate on bail, I made it clear that vulnerable people should not normally be detained under immigration powers. I reiterate that point now. This approach is our published policy. We have a clear list of individuals who are not normally suitable for detention unless there are exceptional circumstances in play. The list includes pregnant women, the elderly, and those who have been identified by the competent authority under the national referral mechanism as victims of trafficking and torture. It is unlawful to act in a way that is contrary to our published policy.
The hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras raised the issue of mental health and release from detention. He asked whether there would ever be circumstances where a high-risk individual may need to be released from immigration detention because of their poor mental health. I can confirm that there will be some cases involving mental health issues where an individual should not be detained under immigration powers, no matter how high the risk and no matter how imminent the removal. In those cases, the right course of action will normally be to transfer to the appropriate authorities.
The new clause lacks definitions of the relevant exclusions and, as such, would be open to broad interpretation, so it contains weaknesses. Such an approach could leave the Home Office open to damages. For example, if a woman was pregnant at the point of detention but not aware of the fact or chose not to disclose her pregnancy, the Home Office could be sued for damages after the fact. It is an unfortunate reality that, in some cases, individuals will not comply with the requirement to leave the UK and their removal must be enforced, which often requires a short period of detention.
I am making a technical point on the drafting of the new clause. There are issues of principle, but we believe that even if the principle were accepted, there are technical deficiencies in the drafting that Members might wish to reflect on, given that no amendments have been tabled.
I appreciate the open and generous way in which the Minister has approached the matter. I would like to build on what the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said. If the Committee supported the intention of the new clause, we would be very keen to work with the Minister to try to get the wording in such a state that the Home Office felt comfortable in taking it forward.
I do not support the new clause. I am certain that the intention behind it is not to undermine immigration control or to reward those who make spurious claims about being a victim of hideous events to avoid enforced removal when they refuse to leave the UK voluntarily. Sadly, those cases exist, which is why this is difficult territory and regrettably, that may be the practical effect of the new clause. However, I recognise that the issue of vulnerable people in detention is a major concern to MPs and to many people outside the House. I therefore ask that the Government are given time fully to consider Stephen Shaw’s review before the House legislates on a very complex issue.
New clause 3 would introduce a statutory time limit on detention unless the individual was listed in the regulations as being exempt from the time limit. There is a common misconception that detention under immigration powers is indefinite. I want to make it clear to the Committee that that is not the case. Although there is no fixed statutory time limit on the duration of detention under immigration powers, it is not the case that there is no time limit. It is limited by statutory measures, the European convention on human rights, the common law, including principles set out in domestic case law, and the legal obligations arising from the Home Office’s published policy, which states:
“Detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary.”
I will highlight something, because some have suggested that there is a desire to extend detention and the process is in essence an aid to that. Published statistics show that the majority of individuals leave detention after 28 days or less, with more than 90% of them leaving detention within four months. Therefore, the facts do not bear out the contention that immigration detention is indefinite.
I ask the Committee to reflect on the fact that if all individuals complied with the notice that they should leave the UK, there would be little need for immigration detention—certainly limited need for detention beyond a short period. However, some individuals choose not to comply with the law and do not leave the UK when they should. For that reason, the time limit on detention is not fixed at a specified value, but is measured by reasonableness and all the circumstances of the individual case. It has been administered by judges case by case, and they will order an individual’s release if the time limit is reached or exceeded.
There is also a practical disadvantage in an arbitrary time limit. People in a non-compliant removal case could simply disrupt their removal for 28 days in the knowledge that they would be released from detention. Sadly, there are people who play the system in that way.
Indefinite detention implies detention that cannot be brought to an end. For reasons of bail and the relevant principles in common law, the detention has to be linked to the ability to remove.
If we look at the cohort likely to be in detention for longer, the vast majority are foreign national offenders. That is the reality we are dealing with. There might be challenges that we are working through on identification, so that they may get the relevant travel documentation, or they might take other measures to prevent their removal. There are a number of challenging policy issues in this area, but I underline the policy principles that exist in respect of why detention is there and why it is linked to removal. Equally, I underline the relevant safeguards.
Hon. Members might say that non-compliant cases could be added to the regulation that sets out cases where the 28-day limit does not apply, but the use of the detention power is increasingly focused on non-compliant individuals to ensure their removal. In reality, even if the clause was founded in that way, there would be little impact if non-compliant cases were added to the list.
I recognise what hon. Members have said about ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. I am proud that the Government have introduced measures to ensure that the routine detention of children under immigration powers is used only in very, very limited circumstances. Equally, we do not detain individuals for age-assessment purposes. In cases in which an individual is held in an immigration removal centre and doubts arise as to whether they are an adult, we aim to release them immediately into local authority care, pending an age assessment.
I recognise that we are discussing a controversial policy area, but I underline the fact that we are dealing with the details. There are a range of public policy views and objectives that need to be advanced, but ultimately there are clear safeguards in the system. We will continue to reflect carefully on the issues of vulnerability, but I hope that, given those assurances, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central is minded to withdraw the new clause.
I am mindful there might be a vote in the Chamber in a few minutes, so I will try to be brief. I accept the Minister’s point that this is a complex and difficult area of policy, but evidence from other countries demonstrates that statutory limits on administrative intervention can and do work effectively. There is a case to be made for the limit suggested in new clause 3 and the specific exclusions suggested in new clause 1.
I underline the breadth of support across the House on this issue. That was evident in the inquiry and in our debate on 10 September, when 25 Members from all parties represented on this Committee—and more besides—spoke. The House, as a result of that debate, endorsed the recommendations.
On the Minister’s point about foreign national offenders and the wider caveats in new clause 3, not all foreign national offenders are necessarily a risk to public safety, and issues around that need to be addressed. I accept his point that there may be a lack of precision in how the new clause is drafted. For that reason, I agree not to press new clauses 1 and 3 on the understanding that he will, as he indicated, actively come back to us with the results of his consideration of the Shaw review. We will then have an opportunity to come back to the issue while the Bill proceeds in a way that achieves the objectives of the new clause, but perhaps in a better crafted way. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Before we adjourn, I add that I may not be with you again if business finishes on Tuesday morning next week. I thank the Clerks, Members on both sides of the Committee, including those on the Front and Back Benches, and everyone for their co-operation during proceedings.
On a point of order, Mr Owen. As this may be our last opportunity as a Committee to recognise your contribution to the Bill in ensuring that our consideration is in order and in adding to the good-natured spirit of our proceedings, may I, on behalf of the Committee, thank you for your chairmanship? We have very much appreciated your guidance and assistance, which has added to our consideration of the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr Owen. I endorse that point of order. Not only for the group the Minister spoke of but for those of us who have gone round this track for the first time, your help and assistance and that of the Clerks has been invaluable to each and all of us.