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The UK’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention



Time to read

8 Minutes

Post by Sarah Turnbull, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

Houses of Parliament, London, on 18 November 2014 (Photo: S Turnbull)
On 7 July 2014, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration launched a joint inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK. The inquiry is led by a cross-party committee of Members of Parliament (MPs) and peers, and is chaired by Sarah Teather MP. The panel members are: Sarah Teather MP; Paul Blomfield MP; David Burrowes MP; Richard Fuller MP; Julian Huppert MP; Jon Cruddas MP; Caroline Spelman MP; Lord Lloyd of Berwick; Lord Ramsbotham; Baroness Lister; and Baroness Hamwee. The stated purpose of the inquiry is to ‘examine the use of detention in the UK immigration and asylum systems, with a particular focus on the conditions within detention centres, the impact on individual detainees and their families, the wider financial and social consequences, and the future role of detention within the immigration system.’ A call for evidence was issued, which encouraged written evidence from a range of stakeholders: government representatives and civil servants; local authorities; charities; researchers; voluntary organisations working with detainees; and current detainees, former detainees, and the families of detainees. The committee aims to publish its report in early 2015.

Houses of Parliament, London, on 6 November 2014 (Photo: S Turnbull)
To-date, three oral evidence sessions have been held at the House of Commons. The first took place on 17 July 2014, the transcript for which is available here. Evidence was given by Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty), Jerome Phelps (Detention Action), three detainees via telephone from Colnbrook IRC, three former detainees, and Drs Cornelius Katona and Katy Robjant (Royal College of Psychiatrists and Helen Bamber Foundation). I attended the following two half-day sessions held on 6 and 18 November 2014. Both sessions had sizable audiences, with the gallery seating for observers quickly filling up. The sessions were live-tweeted by myself (see Border Criminologies’ Storify stories here and here) and other organisations such as Detention Action and René Cassin. In this post, I provide a summary of the second and third sessions.

Second Session

The second oral evidence session held on 6 November 2014 was divided into three parts: (1) experiences of detention; (2) healthcare in detention; and (3) access to legal advice and representation in detention. The first speakers were three former detainees who shared their personal experiences of detention. Common themes emerged around access to healthcare, the mental health impacts of being detained, and the difficult feelings of not being believed, both by the Home Office and centre staff, and of being told to ‘go home.’ One man spoke about the difficulty of being detained for ten months in four different centres and trying to access healthcare when being transferred so many times. Another spoke about her experience of detention as a trauma survivor. When the panel asked the former detainees what they would change about the system of detention, their recommendations included ending indefinite detention and using alternatives to detention.

Next to speak were Dr John Chisholm (British Medical Association), Dr Naomi Hartree (Medical Justice), and Dr Danny Allen (a psychiatrist who previously worked at Colnbrook IRC) who addressed questions about healthcare in detention centres, including screening and assessment procedures, and the handling of mental health issues. Dr Hartree provided an overview of the health screening processes in detention, drawing attention to the challenges of identifying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experiences of torture or rape during screening. Dr Chisholm’s evidence also highlighted the limits of initial health screening in detention, as well as the provision of a different standard of care to detainees and a lack of attention to privacy issues among healthcare providers. In relation to mental health, Dr Allen raised several concerns about available treatment options in detention and his observations of the lack of confidentiality around patient records. He pointed to the debilitating impacts of detention on individuals and argued that conditions like depression and PTSD can’t be treated inside detention centres. Dr Hartree noted that there’s a ‘culture of disbelief’ that extends from Home Office to detention centre staff to healthcare staff.

All three doctors highlighted the need for detention-specific training and adequate healthcare staffing levels at detention centres. Related concerns included the standards of care on offer, issues of consent, privacy, and confidentiality, and use of detainees’ healthcare records. Dr Hartree, in particular, noted a lack of specialized knowledge and training of medical staff for detained populations. She also raised concerns about healthcare staff being tasked with custodial duties like the use of restraints on patients. The issue of rule 35 reports was also identified as a concern by the three doctors, as well as by the committee as indicated in detainees’ written submissions. Dr Hartree recommended a full review of rule 35 system. Regarding pregnancy in detention, committee chair Sarah Teather MP said she was ‘very surprised’ at the number of pregnant women she saw in Yarl’s Wood IRC, and asked Dr Hartree about Medical Justice’s experience in this regard. Dr Hartree pointed to a lack of specialized health services for pregnant women in detention.

The committee asked the three doctors to comment on the health impacts of indefinite detention on detainees. Dr Hartree empathized the mental health impacts of detention and the threat of deportation on detainees, especially those who are torture survivors. Dr Chisholm remarked that ‘detention in and of itself creates health problems,’ while Dr Allen concurred that detention removes hope and creates uncertainty which produces mental health distress.

The last set of speakers were Justine Stefanelli (Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law), Adeline Trude (Bail for Immigration Detainees), Kay Everett (Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association), and a barrister (Bhatt Murphy Solicitors). First to speak was the barrister from Bhatt Murphy who gave evidence on the human and financial costs of detention as the default option, even though removal or deportation isn’t possible. She also pointed to the reduced legal protections and lesser degree of judicial oversight for immigration detainees. Regarding barriers to detainees’ access to legal representation, Ms Trude identified four main issues: lack of availability, low quality, poor communication, and lack of continuity due to transfers. She also raised concerns that the Home Office isn’t providing the Asylum and Immigration Tribunals and detainees with the supporting evidence of its assertions at bail hearings. Ms Everett indicated that detainees don’t have immediate access to legal representation nor adequate information about legal surgeries held inside detention centres. She noted that these legal surgeries, solicitors are only given 30 minutes per detainee. Ms Stephanelli reviewed the judicial oversight practices of immigration detention of other EU countries. She also observed that the UK is ‘complete outlier’ in the EU because it doesn’t have a limit on duration of detention as per the EU Returns Directive followed by other Member States.

Third Session

The third oral evidence session was held on 18 November 2014. This session also consisted of three parts: (1) evidence from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP); (2) experiences of detention; and (3) alternatives to detention and comparisons of the UK detention system to those of other countries.

First to speak were Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Hindpal Singh Bhui, Inspection Team Leader (Immigration Detention), who gave evidence on the role of HMIP and findings of the organisation’s inspections of immigration removal centres in the UK. The issue of holding immigration detainees in prisons was discussed at length, as from HMIP’s perspective, this limited detainees’ access to legal representation and other immigration-specific privileges available to those held in removal centres. Mr Hardwick indicated that more progress is needed on getting immigration detainees out of prison. Both speakers recommended the minimal use of detention for pregnant women. Mr Singh Bhui stressed the importance of high quality rule 35 reports and the need for improvement in this area, including consistent training across the detention estate. HMIP also recommended more resettlement planning as not all detainees will be removed, and many are released to the community.

The next group of speakers were three former detainees who spoke about their experiences of immigration detention. One described her experiences of homophobic bullying at Yarl’s Wood IRC. All noted the psychological challenges of being held indefinitely in detention and dealing with uncertainty. Another former detainee talked about the difficulties of being transferred from one centre to another. The committee asked the speakers to comment on the availability of legal assistance while in detention. One spoke of being let down by his solicitor and his perception that many solicitors failed to appreciate that people’s lives are at stake. Another talked about the challenge of accessing legal aid in detention and how she ended up doing all the work to prepare her case. She noted that all legal information is located in the detention centre library, which made her wonder about access to legal assistance for people who can't read or write, and who don't speak English. Another former detainee said much legal advice comes from other detainees, pointing to a lack of trust of solicitors, particularly those working for legal aid. Lastly, the committee asked the three speakers what they’d recommend about detention. All agreed that detention centres should be closed down. One speaker noted that the impacts of detention extend to detainees’ friends and family as they experience trauma and distress as well. Additionally, the mental health impacts of dealing with uncertainty in detention were seen to be too much. Another expressed his view that the system is racist.

The day’s last set of speakers were Grant Mitchell, Director of the International Detention Coalition, and Dr Alice Edwards, Senior Legal Coordinator with the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. The committee asked the speakers to comment on alternative to detention. Dr Edwards gave evidence about viable alternatives used in other countries, including one project from Canada (the Toronto Bail Program) which provides for community housing and living support, and access to legal advice for those who would otherwise be held in detention. Mr Mitchell identified a ‘case resolution’ approach to individual’s immigration applications rather than use of detention to ‘force’ return. He gave the example of Sweden’s limited use of detention and its focus on reception instead. Dr Edwards noted that it’s on average 80% cheaper to house someone in the community with support compared to detention. Regarding recommendations as to changing the UK system of detention, Dr Edwards indicated that a time limit on detention would reduce costs, including government litigation costs for unlawful detention cases. She also noted Canada’s use of automatic detention reviews as a method of ensuring judicial oversight. Mr Mitchell observed that risk tools to screen individuals and the availability of alternatives can help reduce use of detention. He also said that there’s no evidence that after 45 days, detention increases the likelihood of return or removal. There was also a discussion of how to shift institutional cultures and attitudes away from enforcement and a reliance on detention to the use of alternatives.

In sum, the oral evidence sessions provided an important opportunity for detainees, former detainees, and a variety of stakeholders to share experiences and knowledge about immigration detention in the UK. Notably absent, however, were academic researchers, as well as detention centre staff or representatives from the Home Office. It’s quite possible that at least some of these perspectives have been accounted for via the written submission process. One important issue that remained unaddressed in the oral evidence sessions concerned the impact of privatisation on ‘service delivery’ more generally (i.e., broader in scope than healthcare provision). This seems to be a crucial factor in the operation of detention estate, given that seven of the eleven immigration removal centres are run under contract by for-profit companies. A second issue relates to the impacts of ‘failed’ removals, both in terms of the financial and human costs as individuals are returned to detention. Given that detention is supposed to facilitate removal, a greater understanding of the removal process for detainees would provide additional insight into the purpose and overall functionality of the system.

Next Steps?

At present, there’s been no word as to whether additional oral evidence sessions will be held, or if the committee will now proceed with writing its report. You can follow the inquiry here for further information and updates.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Turnbull S (2014) The UK’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention. Available at:http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/uk-inquiry-into-immigration-detention/ (Accessed [date]).

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