I beg to move,
That this House
has considered immigration detention of victims of torture and other vulnerable people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate and hon. Members from all parts of the House who supported the application.
I also thank the 131 Members who signed my early-day motion on immigration detention last December. It is the eighth most supported EDM in the current Session, which I think signifies the amount of concern on this matter. I am also grateful to the 118 and 114 Members respectively who supported my other two EDMs that prayed against the Government’s delegated legislation on these matters. Those were debated in a Delegated Legislation Committee last week, at which some hon. Members here were present.
I will return to the substance of those statutory instruments later. That the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are also currently investigating issues relating to immigration detention indicates the scale of concern across the House regarding current Government policy.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know she is aware of it, but I draw other colleagues’ attention to the joint inquiry of the all-party parliamentary groups on migration and on refugees, which involved a number of Members from both sides of the House, including a former Conservative Cabinet Minister. Our recommendations were adopted by the House, albeit without a vote.
We recognised through our inquiry the impact of immigration detention on some of the most vulnerable people, hearing evidence of those who had been through trauma having that trauma multiplied through the experience of detention. We concluded that, as well as a different approach to vulnerable people, there should be a statutory time limit on indefinite detention. Will she join me in hoping that, when the Government look at immigration in the pending White Paper and the immigration Bill, they will also consider the whole impact of immigration detention?
I know that those APPGs do valuable work. After seeing examples of the harm caused to vulnerable adults by immigration detention—I am sure we will hear more today—I hope the Government will pay more serious attention to this than their legislation from past years demonstrates, particularly since the introduction of the adults at risk policy in 2016.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to the support I receive for my work on asylum and immigration. Does she agree that, for those who have already suffered torture and persecution in their home countries and who flee here for security, to have that pain compounded in detention, with abuses against them carried out by those who detain them, is the ultimate outrage and something of which we should be deeply ashamed?
Absolutely. I will later ask the Government whether they are not ashamed of the harm caused in their name and which it is within their gift to change—not only is it within their gift, it is under the instruction of the High Court.
The debate provides an important opportunity to scrutinise these matters and to call on the Government to honour their promises to improve the protections for identifying and securing the release of vulnerable adults at risk in immigration detention. The debate also enables us to refer to there being no time limit for immigration detention, unlike in nearly all other European Union countries. That adds to the lack of protection, to the suffering and to the likelihood that the serious mental health harm being inflicted will increase suicide attempts.
The debate is particularly pertinent because the new Home Secretary has pledged to review the Home Office’s hostile environment policy—admittedly because of the Windrush scandal. The 70th anniversary of the arrivals on the Windrush is currently being debated in the main Chamber. I am sure that, as they arrived, they did not expect what has happened recently. The example of what has happened to the Windrush generation should be a warning to the Government that we do not raise these issues to make party political gains; we raise them because there is a humanitarian need and a human rights cause that the Government should not need reminding that they need to address, given what has happened with the Windrush scandal.
The treatment of vulnerable people in our country’s immigration detention system should be an important part of the Home Secretary’s review. It is the considered judgment of esteemed organisations, such as Freedom from Torture, Medical Justice, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Bail for Immigration Detainees, that the current safeguards and the Government’s proposed changes to the law have failed to provide, and will fail to deliver, adequate protection to vulnerable people. That view is held across the board.
My right hon. Friend mentioned a number of organisations. Has she also seen this week’s report from the British Red Cross, which specifically and very helpfully proposed that the Government adopt a vulnerability screening tool, to provide more effective screening of individuals prior to the decision to detain?
I absolutely agree. As I am sure the Minister will mention, because it came up in the Delegated Legislation Committee just a few days ago, the Government consider they have done that. However, given caseworkers’ comments on the training, it is evident that that screening is precisely the problem in many ways. It is not clear to caseworkers how to identify those who are vulnerable or powerless. Those terms are too vague, and the catch-all simply says that the list of identifiers is not exhaustive, which in itself is not good enough.
I am sorry to intervene on my right hon. Friend again. Does she agree that one deficiency of the current arrangements for identifying vulnerable individuals is that, at that very first stage, Home Office staff rely on Home Office information and do not obtain other objective evidence, which might support their making a better decision?
Absolutely. All the evidence tells us that there are major problems with the screening, and all the expert organisations that have commented on this situation, including the Red Cross, tell us that the Government’s changes will not provide the protection that should be provided.
Long-standing Home Office policy has required that vulnerable people, including those with independent evidence of torture, should not be detained unless in exceptional circumstances, but in practice many are. We know from extensive medical evidence that immigration detention can seriously harm the mental health of detainees, particularly those who have previously suffered from ill treatment, and the conditions of immigration detention can be appalling. In a series of findings between 2012 and 2015, the High Court said that the Government’s immigration detention system amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment”.
In 2015, undercover reports by Channel 4 News inside Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth immigration removal centres revealed abuse of detainees and references to medical mistreatment. When the then Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, commissioned the former prison and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw to conduct a review into the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention, his damning report, published in January 2016, found that safeguards for vulnerable people were inadequate and that detention was used too often and for too long.
The Government responded by drafting and implementing their adults at risk policy, which incorporates the detention centre rules and the guidance on detention of vulnerable persons. However, that flagship policy, which is intended to safeguard vulnerable adults by routing them away from or out of detention, is not working—far from increasing protection for vulnerable detainees, it has increased the risk of harm.
In its initial 10 weeks of implementation, the adults at risk policy was applied incorrectly in almost 60% of 340 cases. From January to September 2017, Freedom From Torture’s medico-legal report service received 101 referrals for suspected torture survivors in immigration detention, and 14 of its treatment clients were detained between January 2016 and November 2017. Torture survivors continue to be detained.
The guidance on the detention of vulnerable persons raised the threshold for a decision not to detain by increasing the evidentiary burden on the vulnerable individual. As a result, the release rate following a rule 35 report—designed to screen torture victims out of detention—has fallen dramatically. In quarter 3 of 2016, before the policy was introduced, 39% of those with a rule 35 report were released. In quarter 1 of 2018, that number had fallen to 12.5%.
I urge the Minister to publish more detailed information and data on the functioning of the adults at risk evidence levels and the rule 35 process. Since the adults at risk policy was introduced, how many people have been categorised as an adult at risk under levels 1, 2 and 3, and how many within each of those categories resulted from a rule 35 report? I hope all the scribbling going on among officials and by the Minister herself means that we will get some answers to these questions today.
For each of the adults at risk categories, how many people were subsequently diverted from detention—in other words, not routed into detention? How many were released from detention as a result of a rule 35 report and under which categories? I hope we get some answers today, but I certainly intend to correspond further with the Minister and will consider parliamentary questions as a means to get more data on those matters.
Although it might be the case that the overall number of people in detention is decreasing, there were still more than 27,000 people placed in immigration detention last year. When I reveal that figure to people, they are shocked. I do not think the general public realise how many people are held in immigration detention and they are horrified when they hear that number.
In 2017 alone, 11 people died in custody. Detainees are dying at a faster rate in immigration detention than we have seen before. According to Freedom from Torture,
”statistics for 2017 show that 446 people self-harmed to an extent that they required medical attention. This constitutes a 30% increase over the last two years, which is even worse when we remember there has been a reduction in how many people are detained. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has noted that there has been a significant increase in deaths in detention, particularly self-inflicted deaths: in 2017 there were at least five self-inflicted deaths in immigration removal centres compared with only three in the previous five years.”
There were 2,272 people on formal self-harm watch last year. That constitutes approximately 8% of the detained population, or almost one in 10.
Last September, the BBC’s “Panorama” programme investigated conditions in Brook House immigration removal centre and exposed a culture of abuse and widespread instances of self-harm and attempted suicides by detainees. In its most recent inspection report on Yarl’s Wood, published in November 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found that vulnerable women were still being detained, despite
“professional evidence of torture, rape and trafficking, and in greater numbers than we have seen at previous inspections.”
“The effectiveness of the adults at risk policy...was questionable”.
I would go further than that. This catalogue of failings shows that the Government’s policy is not fit for purpose.
Let us remember that, despite all the evidence, the Government are not changing their policy. We did not see that in the delegated legislation a few days ago. They are not making changes because they have listened or seen the evidence for themselves; they are doing so because they were pulled into the High Court and told that they must make changes.
The analysis that the policy is not fit for purpose was borne out by the ruling of the High Court last year in a case brought against the Home Office by Medical Justice and seven detainees. It found that the Government’s policy unlawfully imprisoned hundreds of victims of torture. That was due to the Home Office’s deeply regrettable decision to narrow the definition of torture so that it refers only to violence carried out by state actors, and excludes vulnerable survivors of non-state abuse. We discussed that in the Delegated Legislation Committee, and I made the point then that the definition excludes anybody tortured—I am sure we can all come up with our own groups—by Hezbollah, ISIS, Daesh, Hamas or whoever. It excludes all those people and encourages states to outsource torture to their proxy groups. I cannot believe the Government are not aware of that.
We need a change. During the Delegated Legislation Committee last week, it was galling to hear the Minister say:
“The adults at risk policy represents a proportionate and rational way of carefully balancing the vulnerability considerations against immigration considerations.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee,
Will the Minister clarify how the policy is proportionate and rational when, according to Medical Justice, it has
“fundamentally weakened protections for vulnerable detainees, leading to more rather than fewer being detained, for longer”?
How is it proportionate and rational to propose amending the detention centre rules and guidance as set out in the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2018 and the Detention Centre (Amendment) Rules 2018, when Medical Justice, which brought the successful litigation against the Home Office, said that the changes will not deliver inclusive, protective and effective detention safeguards for vulnerable people? Medical Justice brought the litigation and the High Court agrees with it. The Government now propose changes, but again Medical Justice says that they will not deliver the required outcome. It beggars belief that the Minister and the Government are not listening.
I did not get a satisfactory response to the question from the Minister in the Committee last week. However, I received a letter from her yesterday—finally responding to a letter that I wrote to her at the end of March, expressing my concerns about immigration detention matters. Given that I wrote my letter two and half months ago, it would have been useful to have the Minister’s response prior to the Delegated Legislation Committee last week. The time lag is unacceptable. In her response, the Minister claimed again that
“the policy we have in place, which will be enhanced by the amendments we lay before Parliament, is rational, sensible and balanced, and provides vulnerable people with proportionate levels of protection.”
What does “proportionate levels of protection” mean? Proportionate to what? That feels like a huge step back from the Government’s commitments in the adults at risk policy.
Certainly, it is not what Stephen Shaw had in mind. Drawing on medical evidence, Shaw said in his report’s conclusions that
“detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability. I need hardly say that a policy resulting in such outcomes will only be ethical if everything is done to mitigate the impact”.
We should be seeking maximum levels of protection for vulnerable people—not proportionate levels. Can the Minister please clarify today what she means by “proportionate levels” of protection?
The Minister also said in her letter that her
I do not know what criteria the Minister uses to judge adequate levels of engagement with outside organisations, but I know that the NGOs are not happy with the way the Minister and the Home Office have conducted the so-called consultation. Freedom from Torture, Medical Justice and others have said that the Home Office failed to consult appropriately or to consider relevant evidence. How can it be, to use the Minister’s words, “proportionate and rational” of the Government to ignore the advice of expert organisations when drafting the statutory instruments, and proportionate and rational of the Minister to run the risk that the Government will face further court action, by ploughing on regardless of criticism?
When the High Court ruled against the Government last year, it placed no obligation on the Home Secretary to define torture in the new policy. Medical Justice and Freedom from Torture cautioned that the new torture definition set out in the Detention Centre (Amendment) Rules 2018 was unnecessary, inappropriate and too complex for caseworkers and doctors to apply to specific cases. That is the very point raised by my hon. Friends. Last week, the Minister said that she did not accept that assessment. I ask her to check again. Organisations commenting on the Home Office training to accompany the new adults at risk guidance said that
“it is quite obvious that the caseworkers did not understand the torture definition”.
“The training focuses very closely on distinguishing between victims of assault and victims of torture, rather than on identifying vulnerability. The training kept creeping back to notions of detention and physical restraint in the language used to explain the definition, and it was clear there was no common understanding of what severity or powerlessness means in the examples used.”
I hope that we do not hear those points referred to in court at some time in the next 12 months, but I fear that we may.
Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice said that
“even when applied correctly, the definition of torture will exclude a group of victims of severe ill-treatment who do not fall within the other indicators of risk”.
I ask the Minister to look at the matter again. I urge her to replace the current categories of torture and sexual or gender-based violence with a more inclusive category, modelled on the detention guidelines from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, namely victims of torture or serious physical, psychological, sexual or gender-based violence or ill-treatment.
NGOs have stipulated that the new catch-all provision in the revised guidance on the detention of vulnerable persons
“does not adequately mitigate the risk of excluding from the protection of the safeguard those known to be at risk of harm in detention.”
Their concerns have been ignored by the Government. NGOs, as well as a cross-party group of parliamentarians, also called on the Government to wait for the publication of Stephen Shaw’s re-review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention before laying the statutory instruments before Parliament in 2018. That was mentioned in Committee last week and I am afraid that the response was far from satisfactory. I am not even sure that I count it as a response at all. It held no water.
The request to wait for the re-review is perfectly sensible. The High Court did not demand that the Home Office should respond to the court order before Shaw published, so that is not an adequate answer. We are now in the bizarre situation where Parliament must consider the revised definition of torture and the amended guidance separately from the findings of the Shaw re-review. It would have been much better to give the Home Office, parliamentarians and expert organisations the benefit of considering the changes in the light of the full insights from Shaw. Given that the statutory instruments are not due to come into force until
The Home Secretary said in a recent written statement to the House on the Windrush scandal that it was
“fundamentally important that the lessons from this episode are learned for the future, so that this never happens again.”—[Official Report,
However, it is very difficult to have any confidence in Home Office Ministers when they are demonstrably unwilling to learn the important lessons on how to increase protection for victims of torture and other vulnerable people in immigration detention. Freedom from Torture, Medical Justice, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Bail for Immigration Detainees could not be clearer:
“Under current arrangements the Adults at Risk policy does not work to ensure that fewer vulnerable people are detained for shorter periods of time. It is already failing and the proposed changes will exacerbate the problem.”
It is their considered and expert judgment that a terrible situation is going to be made even worse.
The Government should be ashamed, yet at no stage have I heard the Minister offer any kind of apology to the victims of torture and other vulnerable people who have suffered under the policy. It is a prime example of the hostile environment that flourished when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary. The adults at risk policy was drafted on her watch. I know that the Minister has been in her post only six months, so I urge her to apologise on the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s behalf for the torment that so many individuals have faced.
However, an apology alone will not be sufficient. We need a fundamental review of immigration detention policy. We need a policy devised with consideration, care and compassion for victims of torture and other vulnerable people. We need a more humane approach, which should also include an end to indefinite immigration detention. I urge the Minister to reflect and act on the concerns that I have expressed and to commit to engaging far more constructively with parliamentarians and NGOs on these important issues. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It will not surprise anybody that I wish to join in this debate to talk about my experiences of detained women who have been victims of torture, gender-based violence, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, abuse—anything that can be thought of that happens to us women. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan on tenaciously and consistently fighting for these people. The Minister should recognise, after a few weeks of being in front of her, that she will not give up.
I associate myself with everything that my right hon. Friend said about the adults at risk policy. That policy specifically states that survivors of sexual or gender-based violence are recognised as “at risk” and so are unsuitable for detention, yet anybody who ever visited Yarl’s Wood would know that the majority of women there have certainly suffered gender-based violence, sexual violence or domestic abuse.
I went to Yarl’s Wood about a year and a half ago to visit a woman who I knew to have been a victim. She was in Yarl’s Wood regardless of the fact that she had been a victim of quite horrendous trafficking and abuse. I do not know whether it was just because these people knew I was coming, but by the time I got there, they had released her, so I went to speak to another woman, who had nobody visiting her—I went back round through the security.
I am not entirely sure what training the Home Office is getting, but as somebody who was trained as a first responder for human trafficking and modern slavery and as such was allowed to refer into the Home Office’s system, it took me one minute to identify that this woman I had never met before was a victim of human trafficking. I did that by talking to her and asking her about her experiences—it was not difficult. I had no doubt that this woman was somebody I could easily have acted as a first responder for to get her into the national referral mechanism for modern slavery in this country. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind, yet there she was, in Yarl’s Wood, surrounded by people who were meant to have assessed her.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention particularly to the situation of women and, indeed, men who have been trafficked, because there is plenty of evidence that being in detention makes it harder for those individuals to receive the expert support and advice that they need, to be able to build up trust to report the experiences that they have had to the authorities and therefore to access the national referral mechanism. As long as we put people in detention, we make another part of the system that is supposed to protect them even less likely to be effective.
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and the matter of trust between the different agencies is something that I shall come on to; in fact, that is the main focus of my speech. I could give hon. Members endless evidence from Women for Refugee Women. I have with me case studies upon case studies of women who had suffered FGM, been forced into prostitution, managed to escape and ended up in Yarl’s Wood. None of them ever seemed to have rule 35 laid out to them—and if they did, that was after two weeks of being detained.
I need not go through all the stories; I am sure that the Minister is very familiar with the issues and I can gladly send her every single one of the case studies. I want to talk mainly about how the Home Office is not only not assessing the people it finds in detention, but actively seeking victims as low-hanging fruit, in its drive to get deportation numbers up. We have seen from the Windrush situation that there is a target culture that is undeniable—somebody got a big Brucie bonus for getting more people deported. We have seen what that has caused to that community.
In my constituency, I was dealing with the case of a woman who was brought to this country on a spousal visa and was abused, tortured, kept locked up and prevented from being fed by her spouse and his family. When she escaped, she came to me, and I did all I could to ensure that her immigration was secured through the domestic violence rules that the Home Office lays out.
It used to be the Sojourner project—or “sojournay” for people who are not from Birmingham. Things were going absolutely fine. We often deal with these cases, and the Home Office agreed that it would put the appeals on hold while we were dealing with this woman’s case. There were some discrepancies. Her husband obviously denied what she had said, and the Home Office, for a spell, decided to agree with him, but we managed to get over that little hump in the road, and then he sent a letter to her family in Pakistan, threatening to kill them—his family in Pakistan would kill her family in Pakistan—and that he would kill her in the UK.
On receiving the letter, my constituent called the police; her brother told her what had happened, and she called the police. I do not necessarily know whether this fits into the fancy idea of torture, but I think that somebody threatening to kill a person’s entire family and them—it is a credible threat, because it is not the first time that they have tried to kill the person—is pretty torturous. The woman called the police. The next day, her neighbour, upset and frightened, called me and said, “She’s told us to call you; she said to call you as she was being taken away.” She was taken away to Yarl’s Wood. When she called the police for help because her life was in danger, the response that she got was that she was taken away to immigration detention.
I cannot think of anything that would make women who are desperate and at risk in this country more unlikely to call the police than the fact that they might be dragged off to immigration detention. It is not only that when this woman was taken to Yarl’s Wood, she was not assessed properly for vulnerabilities or how at risk she might be; they actively took a woman, knowing that her life was at risk. That is totally unacceptable.
As somebody who has dealt with many cases like that, I know that immigration detention and deportation is a tool used by perpetrators of violence and abuse, grooming gangs—you name it, it is used by pretty much every perpetrator I have ever met where immigration was involved in the case. The perpetrators say, “If you tell anyone, they’ll take you away,” and boy, haven’t we just colluded with the violent men in this country that we pretend we are trying to stop!
I thought, “Maybe this is an isolated case and it just happens to be in my constituency,” which I did think was a little odd, but it turns out that it is in no way an isolated case. A freedom of information request was made recently of every police force in the country. Of the 45 police forces asked about the practice of handing over victims’ details, more than half said that they did that; the rest either did not reply or did not give a clear yes or no. Currently, we have a situation in our country where immigration officers are specifically targeting victims who come forward to the police forces. There should be a Chinese wall between victims of abuse and violence, and immigration detention.
“how many victims detailed in domestic homicide Reviews were classified as (a) migrant to the UK and (b) no recourse to public funds in the last three years.”
Unsurprisingly, although we share all sorts of information about who is in our custody, we do not collect that information centrally.
It is horrifying to think that people who are vulnerable and desperate, who have suffered all manner of torture, are still being failed by our immigration system when they come forward for help. It is criminal that we are handing over victims of violence into immigration detention centres. We do not even need to do an assessment, because we know; they have rung us up about rape, abuse and torture, whether at home or abroad. That we think the appropriate thing is to get on the phone to immigration detention is totally and utterly unacceptable. It is a massive breach of trust in this country that this is still happening.
Again, I associate myself with everything my right hon. Friend has said and the questions she put to the Minister. I want to know what plans the Home Office has to introduce proactive screening processes in the adult risk process; it has a proactive way of detaining people, as I have just outlined. How will the Home Office ensure that people are only detained for the shortest possible time, as the detention policy sets out? As has been said, why is it only the UK that does not have limits on immigration detention? I want to hear from the Minister about that.
I am sure the Home Office will get used to all the amendments that will be tabled to the Domestic Abuse Bill, because this Chinese wall will be in there. I will stand and ensure that no woman who ever rings up about being raped or having a threat to the life of her or her children, whether here or in a different country, ever ends up in Yarl’s Wood again. I will find every single woman that has happened to.
What plans does the Home Office have to look at different ways of dealing with this? The Corston report on women in prison should be a lodestar and touchstone. There are community organisations to which the Government could pay a tiny fraction of what they are currently paying to whoever it is these days—G4S or Serco, or perhaps it is Sodexo, that makes sausage rolls for hospitals and keeps prisoners safe. Such a range! Those community organisations would actually help these people.
I worked in a human trafficking service. I worked for years in community projects with women with unstable migration status. I can almost guarantee that our rates of return home were better than those of the current detention system, because we did not just send people back to a country with no support. We ensured that those choices were made in reasonable time and that the safest option, whether staying here or going back, was followed.
There is no energy going into looking at better community options for immigration detention, for both men and women. Yet, in every other area of criminal justice, we will see that community detentions have far better rates, are far cheaper and are much better for the human rights of the people involved. I will leave the Minister with that. I cannot ask enough times whether she will confirm for me that a victim of crime will never again be used just to inform our deportation numbers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I do not have a great deal to add to the eloquent speeches of my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan and my hon. Friend Jess Phillips. Like them, I have been absolutely devastated by some of the stories I have heard of what has been happening to vulnerable people, who have committed no crime and who are locked up by the state when they have already suffered unimaginable trauma.
I became aware of just what that means for individuals at the St Bride’s Destitution Project, which is run with the British Red Cross at St Bride’s church in my constituency. It is a drop-in for refugees and asylum seekers, many of them destitute, to find company or to get some advice, food or clothing.
While I was there on a visit, a lady came in who had just been released from Yarl’s Wood and sent all the way back to Manchester that afternoon. That was not the first time that this had happened to her, because one of the features of our detention system is that people are in and out, in and out. We have a cat and mouse situation of taking people into detention, deciding they are vulnerable or do not pose a risk, releasing them and then—later in the protracted process of handling their claim for status—bringing them back into detention again.
When that lady came in, she collapsed in front of me. She literally collapsed. Her legs gave way beneath her, not for a physical reason, but for the sheer relief of being out of detention. I have never seen anything like it. I was moved and horrified. The distress that lady felt and her relief at being out of that situation will stay with me all my life. What threat she posed to our community and society I cannot imagine. The threats were being directed by us, as a state, at her.
I endorse everything that has been said about the deplorable, inhumane way that we are treating people in detention, particularly about the failure of the process to screen out at the first stage of the process people who should not be going to detention at all. I would also like to draw the attention of right hon. and hon. Members to the complete failure of the assessment process when people try to avail themselves of rule 35 inside our detention centres.
Women for Refugee Women produced a compelling report on the experiences of a group of women that it was able to talk to in Yarl’s Wood, some of whom had sought rule 35 reports. Sometimes those women had had to wait a considerable period even to have the assessment and the report prepared—women who present as highly vulnerable and are then told to wait days, if not weeks, until someone takes the time and has the capacity properly to assess that vulnerability. That would not happen in any other part of our public services. It should not happen to those vulnerable people.
Even when those women obtained a rule 35 report and it confirmed that they had been survivors of gender-based or sexual violence, many of them were still kept in detention. I cannot understand how they were not released when it had been identified that those women had experienced something, which any woman in this room will know would be torturous. We could not live with that. We would be vulnerable as a result.
We have to recognise that many of those who spend time in detention will be released and returned to the community. Some 56% of those in detention return to the community after a time.
That is a really interesting statistic—56%—and I thank my hon. Friend for making such a powerful contribution to the debate. Let us remind ourselves: Home Office policy is that people should be detained only in exceptional circumstance. How can that be being applied if 56% are then released?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and when she was talking about detention not being proportionate, I thought, “How can it be proportionate, when more than half the people who are detained are clearly not a risk that means we have to lock them up? If they were, they would not be returned to the community.” It makes no sense.
We need some clear answers from the Minister on the failure of the assessment process—or lack of process—before people are detained, and we need much greater insight into what the Government are doing to address the fact that in detention, the way of screening, assessing and dealing with vulnerable adults is still not working well, despite the adults at risk policy and the availability of rule 35.
Just today, I was sent a copy of the Independent Monitoring Board’s report on what happens when people are deported from detention centres. There, too, we have a catalogue of poor-quality treatment of people who are leaving the country and are therefore likely to be traumatised, angry and frightened. Although it is legitimate to remove them, we should do that in a way that is dignified and humane. The report makes it clear that we do not consistently do that. How can we hold our heads up in a civilised country if we have to shackle people unnecessarily, deny them access to private toilet facilities and leave them to get off a plane in their home country without any knowledge of what support they will have or what situation they are walking back into, and without any advice available?
At every stage of the process, our system shames us, especially in relation to the most vulnerable people who have suffered persecution, torture and abuse. I hope the Minister understands how much concern there is about the way our detention system works—not just among those of us who could be in the Chamber this afternoon, but across the House. Like my hon. Friends, I very much look forward to her response to that concern.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate Joan Ryan on securing the debate, on another expert speech and on the work that she has done in recent weeks to challenge Government policy on the detention of vulnerable people. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate so far. It is fair to say that they all have strong and long track records in championing the cause. We have heard typically eloquent and passionate speeches from the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
I also thank the campaigners and campaign groups who do so much to keep the issue on the agenda. The vulnerable detainees we are talking about are kept so far out of sight and mind that it would be easy to forget about them. It is a tribute to the campaigners that they continue to work to support those detained individuals and push to keep them on the political agenda.
As in every debate on detention, I begin by repeating the position of the Scottish National party that the large-scale, routine detention of many thousands of people in private prisons for an indeterminate period at the discretion of immigration officers remains a scandal. It is a stain on our democracy and an affront to the rule of law—a matter of shame, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston correctly put it.
The current system is unacceptable for a host of reasons: it detains too many people, including people who should never be detained; it detains people for too long and without a defined time limit; and the safeguards against detention are utterly inadequate. If those factors are not enough, we can appeal to the purse strings: it is hugely costly and inefficient, and it does not remotely achieve what the Government want it to do.
Root and branch reform is urgently required; tinkering around the edges is nowhere near enough. Reform is needed not just of the detention system, but of the whole immigration system of targets and the hostile environment, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley argued.
I suspect that the Minister will say, as she has said before, including last week, that the number of people detained is proportionately quite small, but that is just too far removed from reality. The fact that 28,000 people are detained in any given year is absolutely horrendous. The UK’s immigration estate is among the largest in Europe; we detain several times as many people as some of our European neighbours. It has become a matter of routine rather than a last resort.
All those facts and figures were set out in the cross-party report referred to by Paul Blomfield. The sheer volume of people involved is one reason that adequate procedures to stop the detention of vulnerable people are almost impossible to operate—the system cannot cope.
The debate is not just about numbers; it is about individual stories. The hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley and for Stretford and Urmston did us an important service in reminding us of that, and in providing some horrifying examples of what is going on. As Stephen Shaw made clear in his first report,
“detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability.”
That vulnerability will vary over the period of detention and has consequences for people long after they are released—as we have heard, 56% of them will be released back into the community—as highlighted in the new British Red Cross report, which has also been referred to.
Despite that, the UK still locks up vulnerable people on a huge scale, including victims of trafficking, torture or sexual violence, people with mental health conditions, and pregnant women. Mr Shaw described the detention of people with serious mental illness as an “affront to civilised values” and I agree.
Torture survivors and victims of serious violence and ill-treatment are among those particularly vulnerable to harm. Last week, the Government ignored concerns from the Opposition and from organisations such as Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice that their proposed changes to the detention rules would undermine rather than improve the safeguarding of victims of torture and ill-treatment.
As the right hon. Member for Enfield North said, the problem with those changes is that they encumber medical practitioners with an overly complex definition of torture that introduces a concept of powerlessness that has a dubious link to vulnerability and that will require a detailed and excessive interrogation of the vulnerable person. There is a danger that victims of severe ill-treatment and violence risk being excluded from the protections offered in the detention centre rules and guidance.
The burden of evidence placed on torture survivors has also increased. Instead of simply requiring them to provide independent evidence of torture to justify exclusion from detention, specific evidence is now needed to show that detention is likely to cause harm, which is a difficult concept.
We also need to consider the fact that guidance now includes a broader range of immigration factors that can justify detention even of torture survivors. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said, the adults at risk policy appears to make it more likely that vulnerable people will remain in detention because it requires the Home Office to balance the person’s vulnerability with their immigration history, with disproportionate weight being given to latter in many cases. The proof is in the pudding: the figures show that the number of releases following a rule 35 report has plummeted from 39% to 12.5%. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston set out exactly why the rule 35 process cannot be considered fit for purpose.
Last week, along with other hon. Members, I argued that the Government’s policy on the detention of vulnerable people should be shaped by the new Shaw review. The right hon. Member for Enfield North described that request as not unreasonable; I think it would be entirely sensible. Even though the Government have ignored our request, it remains the case that fundamental reform is needed, and it should reflect the wide-ranging recommendations of Mr Shaw’s reports.
We will continue to argue that there is no need for a specific definition of torture, and that the category of vulnerability should be broadened to include other victims of serious violence and ill-treatment, as recommended in the UNHCR detention guidelines. There should be a presumption, not a burden of proof, that such individuals are vulnerable to harm, and we should make their detention truly exceptional, rather than arming the Home Office with a further list of excuses for keeping them locked up. There is a drastic need to introduce a more thorough screening process.
More broadly, the detention estate must be cut drastically. The Yarl’s Woods, the Brook Houses and the Dungavel Houses should be shut down. Community alternatives and case management systems are more humane, cheaper and more effective, and they should be rolled-out with learning from best practice in other countries. There must be a time limit on detention. We must end this stain on our country’s reputation. As the right hon. Member for Enfield North said, this is a human rights cause, and we will all continue to champion it until radical reform is delivered.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan for securing the debate, for her powerful speech and for her pertinent questions. I am sure that we would all agree that although there are not many hon. Members present, the speeches we have heard have been of a very high quality and very passionate. Some important questions have been asked of the Minister; as we have enough time, I hope she will be able to answer them.
Victims of torture and other vulnerable people should not be in immigration detention, but current safeguards are not working and vulnerable people are still being detained for long periods. The Shaw review made a number of recommendations, but the Government’s response to that review—addressing adults at risk—has in some places made matters worse. Last week, the Minister confirmed that she already had Shaw’s follow-up review. I look forward to that being published this month, so that we can fully scrutinise and debate his findings. Today I will discuss issues that happen before people are detained, the experience of people in detention and the difficulties that vulnerable people have when they are released.
First, the Home Office should identify whether someone is vulnerable before they are detained; a number of Members emphasised that point. Currently, there is no effective pre-detention screening process. The detention gatekeeper works only with the limited information that is already on a person’s file; often, that information is not enough to identify vulnerability.
Secondly, the experience of being in detention can often increase someone’s vulnerability; again, this point has been emphasised before. Many studies have shown that the lack of a time limit on detention causes significant distress. As Sabiti from Uganda put it,
“It’s horrible not knowing when it will end. You are just there sitting, waking up and eating, and there’s nothing;
it’s like your whole life has just stopped.”
We need a 28-day time limit on immigration detention. The detention estate is enormously expensive and it is not effective, even when measured by the Home Office’s own standards. The majority of people in detention are released back into the community and not deported.
It is common for people to be moved around between detention centres. I have been told that moves often happen at night because the contractors doing the outsourcing do not have enough vans and drivers to organise moves during the day. This causes a number of problems, especially for vulnerable people: people with health difficulties cannot receive the continuity of care that they need; and people are housed away from their families and often do not have any visitors for the whole period that they are detained, especially as detainees’ phones are routinely confiscated. They cannot contact family, friends or anyone else they rely on outside.
Thirdly, it is difficult for vulnerable people to be released from detention, even when the Home Office has recognised them as being vulnerable. Vivian experienced female genital mutilation, or FGM, as a child. Later, she married an abusive and violent man, who forced her into prostitution. She eventually fled to the UK. Vivian told the Home Office what had happened in her main asylum interview. She remained in detention for two months before she obtained a rule 35 report. However, even after that report, the Home Office refused to release her for four months, when a new legal aid solicitor threatened to take the Home Office to court. Vivian’s story highlights a number of problems with the rule 35 process. Many detainees do not know about it. Women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre are not told about rule 35 reports by Home Office or detention centre staff as a matter of course.
Some detainees also have to wait for long periods to see a doctor—sometimes for two weeks or more. Even if a vulnerable person receives a rule 35 report, fewer vulnerable people are being released now than before the adults at risk policy was introduced. Before that policy was introduced, 39% of those with a rule 35 report were released. After its introduction, that fell to 12.5%. Why was there this fall?
The adults at risk policy raised the threshold for a decision to detain. Before, victims of torture would only be detained in “very exceptional circumstances”; now the harm of detention is balanced against a vague set of “immigration factors”, such as the risk of absconding. And the vulnerable person must present specific evidence that detention is likely to cause harm. This is very hard to do before someone has actually been detained.
Most people with rule 35 reports are victims of torture. The Government have made changes to the definition of torture in the adults at risk policy that will come into effect on
Secondly, the new definition is unnecessary. If implemented in its current form, and even if it is applied perfectly, this definition of torture will exclude victims of severe ill treatment. The Secretary of State has the power to create an inclusive category of people who will be protected by the adults at risk policy. Rather than narrowing the definition of torture, the Government should incorporate the High Court ruling into their wider review of the detention centre rules, and the adults at risk guidance. This should take into account the findings of the second Shaw review and a proper consultation.
During the Committee on the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2018 last week, the Minister told us that she is rolling out an extensive training programme for caseworkers and healthcare professionals in detention centres. Would it not make more sense to conduct a review of the entire detention centre rules and guidance, and train staff on everything at once, rather than bringing this change in now and possibly altering it later this year?
Finally, I turn to what happens when people are released; put simply, the problems do not go away. Often, people are released into destitution. Some very vulnerable people in detention will have been receiving medical treatment. Typically, people are given only four hours’ notice of release and then given a ticket back to wherever they were living before being detained. That creates serious problems regarding continuity of care. The trauma of detention stays with people. Without a resolution to their case, they are released from one limbo into another. Many people were originally detained when they went to report to authorities. On release, they go back to reporting regularly and each time they worry that they could be detained again.
In conclusion, our immigration detention system is not adequately protecting vulnerable people. We have the Shaw review, and the review of the detention centre guidelines is coming up. I encourage the Minister to halt the changes to the definition of torture that are due to come in soon, and to undertake a proper consultation on the wide reforms that are needed. Our detention system desperately needs a culture change: we need a 28-day time limit; we need a true presumption against detention, so that it is only used as a last resort; and we need to end the outsourcing of detention to private companies.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
I commend Joan Ryan for securing this debate on the immigration detention of victims of torture and other vulnerable individuals. As many Members will know, the right hon. Lady has been absolutely diligent on this issue. Of course, we have heard several times mention of the debate that she secured last week, having prayed against the two statutory instruments, which, to a large extent, have provoked this discussion today.
I thank Members for their contributions to the debate, but I pay particular tribute to the expertise and knowledge of the hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I certainly recognise their wealth of knowledge and the opportunities that they often provide to—for want of a better phrase—pick their brains and find common ground. That is important when we are discussing sensitive issues. We should find common ground when it is there to be found. I know that there will be many areas where we disagree, and I will undoubtedly cover them in due course, but it is imperative that when Members from across the House have expertise and knowledge, we seek to use it and learn from it.
There was certainly no intention in last week’s the statutory instruments to make matters worse for vulnerable individuals and victims of torture, but I come back time and again to the judgment of October last year, which clearly gave us guidance and a steer that we needed to take action within a reasonable timescale to make our definition clearer. We have discussed the timing of the statutory instruments, but I go back to this point: we are duty bound as a Government to act within a reasonable timescale, and the judgment indicated we should do so.
I was concerned that if we waited for the Shaw re-review to come out, we would lose the opportunity to lay the SIs before the summer recess and that they would then not be laid until the autumn, potentially coming into effect more than a year after the judgment. In making his judgment, Mr Justice Ouseley had the benefit of the expert witnesses of Medical Justice, among others. He made it very clear that we as a Government had to act.
The Minister is being very generous, as she was in Committee. Did she give any consideration to simply going back to the definition that we had prior to the adults at risk policy, while we waited for the Shaw review? It was surely in her gift or that of her officials to talk to Stephen Shaw and ascertain roughly when the re-review might be available. Clearly he was very close to making it available. We could have taken a step back from the 2016 adults at risk policy, and then found ourselves with the Shaw re-review and in a position to do a full review to bring forward a policy that could command the support of the expert groups.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. I want to address briefly some issues of timing and whether the most desirable outcome would be to seek to turn the clock back. I think she almost commenced some of her commentary this afternoon with a discussion of how the Shaw review occurred. We received his first review in 2016. It was started because previous policies were not working. We should accept his expertise and recommendations and learn from them.
I am not going to say this afternoon that I think the adults at risk policy is perfect. I regard it very much as a work in progress—something that we will seek to improve, adapt and amend. Do I at this point seek to turn the clock back? No, I do not. The right hon. Lady must wait for the publication of the review and the response we intend to make. I intend it to be very full and to provide as much information as possible, taking on board Stephen Shaw’s recommendations and ensuring that we make our detention policies better. I said last week and reiterate this afternoon that we will update our detention centre rules in the second half of this year. That gives us an opportunity to look at many of the issues that have been raised this afternoon.
Members will know—it has been alluded to this afternoon—that 95% of those who are here without the right to be so are in the community. Some 5% will be in detention at any one time. I am determined, and have been since I came in as Minister, to look at the alternatives to detention. We do so constantly. We can all understand that being in detention puts stress on individuals. For those who are vulnerable, those stresses will be exacerbated, and we have seen the evidence that indicates that. It is important, however, that we accept that it is Government policy that for those who have no right to be here and for whom alternatives to detention have not succeeded, may not succeed or may not be appropriate, there will remain a place for detention within our immigration system. It is important that we recognise that it is only when there is a realistic chance of removal within a reasonable timescale that individuals will be considered for detention, including by the new detention gatekeeper that was introduced post-2016 and post-Shaw. We should acknowledge that the detention estate has reduced. I have an ambition to continue to see it reduce, because that is absolutely the right direction of travel.
I reject the right hon. Lady’s suggestion that there is targeting of victims, and I reject the phrase “low-hanging fruit”. That is not a term I recognise or would use, but I know we can do better. One hears with absolute horror the case studies that she identifies and highlights so properly to us this afternoon. We must ensure we are not putting individuals who have been the victims of domestic violence at further risk. She has been diligent in her determination to reinforce that message to me.
We have also heard this afternoon of the horrendous—I think that is the only word I can use—instances at Brook House. As a new Immigration Minister, the “Panorama” programme made extremely unhappy viewing. My private office provided me with the link and told me to go home that night and watch it. We have the Lampard review in place, and we have the reviews that are carried out in every immigration removal centre by the independent monitoring boards. I have been pleased to meet members of the monitoring boards and receive their reports. They are an important tool in understanding where we are getting things wrong and how we can do things better.
As I mentioned, we will review the detention centre rules in the second half of this year, and I regard that as an important opportunity that we must seize. As Members will know, the Government work hard to encourage individuals to comply with our immigration rules and support those with no right to remain to leave voluntarily. A minority of individuals refuse to comply, and detention can then become a necessary tool for enforcing return.
Like the right hon. Lady, I would prefer that we did not have to use detention, but when people do not leave voluntarily, have no right to be here and frustrate attempts to seek their return from this country, we must use it. It is used sparingly, however, and we operate a strong presumption in favour of not detaining. As I have said, of those people with no lawful basis to stay in the UK and who are liable to removal, 95% are managed in the community at any one time.
For every individual who is detained, there must be a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale. In each case, we expect those making detention decisions to consider the likely duration of detention necessary to effect removal. The majority are held for short periods of time. Some 91% of those leaving detention in the year ending March 2018 were detained for less than four months, and 64% were detained for 28 days or less. Their welfare is of the utmost importance to the Home Office.
Where it is necessary to detain people to remove them, a number of safeguards are in place including the presence of healthcare staff in all immigration removal centres and residential short-term holding facilities; a comprehensive suite of published guidance and operating procedures to govern conditions in the centres and support the wellbeing of detainees; regular reviews of detention by increasingly senior officers to ensure that detention remains appropriate and to drive forward case progression; and independent judicial oversight of immigration detention.
The adults at risk policy implemented in September 2016 provides a further vital safeguard and was a key part of our response to Stephen Shaw’s review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention, which was commissioned by the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary. Under the adults at risk policy, vulnerable people are detained or their detention continued only when the immigration considerations in their case outweigh the evidence of vulnerability. Detention decisions are made on the basis of all the available evidence. Cases are reviewed not only at regular intervals, but whenever new evidence comes to light.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, we were all deeply shocked by the events shown in the BBC’s “Panorama” programme about Brook House. The centre operator took swift action in response, suspending and then dismissing a number of members of staff, and, as I said, Kate Lampard has been commissioned to conduct an independent review.
The national referral mechanism is the existing process by which people in the UK who may have been trafficked, or people in England or Wales who may be the victims of slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour, can be identified and supported by the Government or other agencies. In addition, detention centre rules 34 and 35 help us to identify vulnerable victims.
The right hon. Member for Enfield North asked a very specific question about how many individuals are categorised as level 1, 2 or 3 under the adults at risk policy. I will write to her separately with the management information, but I want to put on record that we are considering publishing that information as part of our response to Shaw. The adults at risk policy seeks to strike a balance between the risk of harm to the individual from detention and the immigration factors in their particular case. That is both sensible and reasonable, and ensures that those who are most vulnerable, and therefore most at risk of harm from detention, are not detained unless the immigration factors outweigh that risk. I believe that that is a proportionate approach, and if people are detained their welfare is, of course, of the utmost concern, including ensuring that the period of detention is as short as possible.
Stretford and Urmston. Streatham is not very far away, is it? You would think, with my accent, I would have been able to get that right—I do apologise.
My hon. Friend talked about 56% of people being released back into the community. There clearly is a problem. It is not as the Minister says. I do not understand what confidence we can have if she cannot take account of that. Could she also confirm that the Shaw re-review will be published later this month?
That is an important point about proportionality and the numbers who are released from immigration detention. We use detention to ensure that people who have no right to be here are returned to their home country. However, it is important that when additional information emerges and people demonstrate vulnerability, there is constant review. They can ask at any moment for consideration of immigration bail, which will be automatic after four months and every month thereafter. I accept that we do not make correct decisions all the time. I welcome the fact that when evidence emerges of vulnerability or of another reason why it is inappropriate for somebody to be in detention, we are happy for them to be released into the community and for their case to be managed in a better way than detention.
The Minister might not have the information before her, but I wonder whether she could write to me to advise me of the frequency of people being taken into detention, released, and then taken back into detention, and the reasons for that. She suggests that new information might come to light and people’s vulnerability may change over time. I accept that, but I would like a better understanding of the degree of churn in the system. That constant uncertainty, and the sense that even when they are returned to the community they might end up back in detention, is extremely damaging to vulnerable people.
As I would expect, the hon. Lady makes an important and concerning point about churn. We all share that concern, because we want to have effective immigration policies, not churn. As I said, it is right that when vulnerabilities are demonstrated people are released, and that their immigration bail can be considered on request at any time. I will certainly write to her with the information she seeks.
As I said, the Shaw review became available to me at the end of April, which was later than I had anticipated, albeit not by much. We are currently working very hard on our response. We will publish that as soon as possible, but I want it to be a thorough response. It is important that the Government’s response is as full as possible, taking on board, understanding and showing action on the recommendations that Shaw has made.
Listening to the Minister, I am struggling. The simple point is that she has said, even today, that detention is a last resort. We know from the facts that the majority of people are released back into the community. Does that not prove that the system is not fit and that something needs to be done?
The hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on the fact that 95% of those who have no right to be here are in the community. A small proportion are in detention, but it is absolutely right that when those who have gone into detention provide us with additional information towards their potential asylum claim, we reflect on that, and that we enable people to be released from detention when they should not be there. I do not accept his premise that the system does not work, and I hope that he might accept that there is a place for immigration detention.
I am sorry; I wish to conclude my remarks very shortly.
I reassure hon. Members that we are absolutely committed to the welfare of detainees, and specifically to protecting victims of torture and other vulnerable people in immigration detention. I am clear that those aims are important to us and not incompatible. It is to those complementary ends that we are now implementing the judgment that the court set down clearly in October, and we shall seek to do so within a reasonable timescale.
I thank hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate. My hon. Friend Jess Phillips provided moving and powerful examples from her own experience. She and my hon. Friend Kate Green fleshed out the human cost of the policy since 2016 and, I think, its cost going forward. I am grateful to the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, Stuart C. McDonald, for his support and knowledge on this matter, both today and in Committee. The Front-Bench spokesperson for the Labour party, my hon. Friend Afzal Khan, made a powerful case that demonstrated understanding, for which I am grateful.
I cannot deny that I am very disappointed in the Minister’s response. I do not expect her to stand here today and change policy, but I hope that she will go away and reflect on what has been said. I am sure that she will, and I hope that she will reflect to the degree that we hear something different when we get the Government’s response to the Shaw re-review. I think we are seeing a change only because the Government were dragged into the High Court. The change has not occurred of the Government’s own volition, so perhaps we should not be surprised that we are not hearing the things that we think we should be.
It is no use talking about 95% and 5%. We are talking about 27,000 people—more than 4,000 women at any one time—suffering from an inhumane policy that contravenes many people’s human rights. I do not think we can say that the Government are doing it in the name of the people of this country. It is taking the low-hanging fruit to meet the immigration numbers, and it does not take account of how people are suffering.
The policy has to change. It will continue to be challenged, and I hope that we do not have to come back here in a year’s time. It will give us no satisfaction to say, “We were right,” given what the human cost will be between now and then. That could be avoided if the Government would but listen. Do not give lip service to abandoning the hostile environment—genuinely abandon the hostile environment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered immigration detention of victims of torture and other vulnerable people.