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.