Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Immigration Detention in the UK Under Review (Again)



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9 Minutes

Post by Mary Bosworth, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

This morning two reports into immigration detention in Britain were officially released. The first, written by the former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Stephen Shaw, was the 346 page Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons. The second, coming in at 192 pages, was the Independent Investigation into Concerns about Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre written by Kate Lampard and Ed Marsden.

I met with both teams during the course of their investigations and contributed a literature review on the impact of detention on mental health to the Shaw review, which appears as Appendix 5 in the publication. I received embargoed copies of both publications ahead of today’s announcements as well as the government’s response to the Shaw review. It is on the basis of reading those documents that I have put together this overview of them. These are long reports and they will benefit from further scrutiny. Here I offer a synthesis of their main points and some initial reflections.

First of all it’s worth noting that these two reports respond to different circumstances and thus concentrate on distinct aspects of detention. While Shaw’s was a government-funded investigation into welfare and vulnerability across the whole detention estate, Lampard and Marsden were employed as independent investigators by Serco as a result of allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood and the 2015 Channel 4 exposé. To that end, unlike Shaw, they concentrate on just one establishment. They also emphasize the role of staff. 

Reflecting their remits, the reports take somewhat different forms. Shaw’s is particularly wide-ranging, covering an array of topics and establishments. Over six months he met with numerous people, as he sought to understand the whole system. This range is reflected in the range and number of recommendations he makes as he explores the legal and policy framework of detention, the definition of vulnerability and welfare, the nitty gritty of daily life behind bars, the logistics of transfer and allocation to institutions.  Drawing on Home Office resources, Shaw publishes new statistics about the detained population and those on Assessment Care in Detention Teamwork (ACDT).  He also arranged an audit of detention policies and commissioned a legal analysis of cases where a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights has been found in respect of vulnerable detainees (Appendix 4). In the latter part of the report he concentrates on health care and mental health implications of detention. His 64 recommendations are listed on pages 193 to 198.

As would be expected, the Lampard report is rather more narrowly focused. Although Lampard and Marsden consulted widely within and outside Yarl’s Wood, visiting other IRCs and HMP Bronzefield, ultimately they concentrate on operational matters within Yarl’s Wood and related to Serco. They spent far more time in this IRC than Shaw was able to pass in any other facility. The text of their report reflects their familiarity with this place.  It effectively deploys quotes from a range of staff and detainees as well as experts in the field to flesh out their argument.

Shaw starts with a number of policy recommendations concerning the justification and purpose of detention, urging the Home Office to:

  • prepare and publish a strategic plan for immigration detention’ (Recommendation 1); and
  • amend the Detention Centre Rules,’ (Recommendation 4), in large part to make a more concerted effort to spell out their positive obligations to those they confine.

He also advises them to publish the: ‘discussion draft of the short term holding centre rules… as a matter of urgency’ (Recommendation 7).

Certain populations, Shaw states, should either be totally excluded from detention or only held under exceptional circumstances, including ‘victims of rape and other sexual or gender-based violence’ (Recommendation 9), ‘pregnant women’ (Recommendation 10), ‘those with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (Recommendation 12), ‘people with learning difficulties’ (Recommendation 13), ‘transsexual people’ (Recommendation 14), and certain elderly people above a certain (unspecified) age (Recommendation 15).

Shaw moves into operational matters as well, advocating access to Skype and social media in detention (Recommendation 30), changes to room searching in Yarl’s Wood (Recommendation 35), the end to incentives and earned privileges schemes (Recommendation 34), and the amalgamation of rules 40 and 42 (Recommendation 37). He also recommends night-time closure of detention centres (Recommendation 41) to prevent the current system of moving people around the estate at all hours.

Shaw offers a number of suggestions about improving legal safeguards and healthcare, advocating a system-wide review of mental health (Recommendation 54) and the improvement of mental healthcare in detention (Recommendation 58). He also recommends that case workers should meet face-to-face with detainees (Recommendation 59) and argues for the creation of a research strategy for detention (Recommendation 54).

The Lampard review identifies many similar issues within Yarl’s Wood. They too argue for greater consideration of the purpose of detention. They also identify healthcare provision as a key challenge, even though it fell outside their remit as it was not provided by Serco.

In their focus on just one establishment, Lampard and Marsden offer useful insights into privatization and administrative power. In particular, they go into some detail about what Serco refers to as the ‘hotel model’ of governance. This stripped down approach to staff is apparent in other centres, as Dominic Aitken and I recently observed at Colnbrook and Harmondsworth IRCs. It is, as the Lampard report makes clear, a double-edged sword. While it appears primarily motivated by cost-cutting desires (a claim that senior staff at Yarl’s Wood and in Serco reject), it champions more autonomy and freedom within the establishments. It’s also a direct statement that such places are not prisons.

While the Lampard report is evidently skeptical of this claim, they use it to push for progressive reforms in reducing securitization. From a reduction in the number of room searches to the greater use of outdoor space, they spend some time listing reforms that would continue to ‘soften’ the nature of incarceration.   In their own words, over the next six months they urge:

‘Managers should continue to look for opportunities to improve the physical environment at Yarl’s Wood and make it less prison-like. In particular they should discuss with the Home Office whether they can give residents access to more open space and whether they can increase natural light in the corridors and common parts of the centre.’ (Recommendation 16)

More critically, however, the Lampard report is concerned about the number of staff on duty. They give examples of times when staff have had to leave units entirely unattended in order to move individuals or to complete some other responsibility. They observe, as we did too in Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, that cuts in numbers leave staff feel over-worked and unsupported. These policies fundamentally change people’s job, leaving them with less and less time to build relationships with those in their care.

Serco is already reviewing the staffing levels Lampard and Marsden note, recommending as a matter of urgency that: ‘Managers undertaking the current staffing review should address the question of how staff can best be given time to engage with residents and meet this emotional as well as practical needs’ (Recommendation 9).

While the Lampard report does not find any evidence of systemic staff brutality or inappropriate behavior, they do recognize some points of weakness in the current system. First of all they argue that there should be a clearer statement of purpose running throughout the whole establishment. Staff, they suggest, are not sufficiently guided in principled terms about what they do and what they should be doing. Secondly and relatedly, they call for an overhaul of the whistleblowing system. At present, they find, when staff witness inappropriate behavior it’s very unclear how to manage it. While all IRCs operate a system of ‘security incident reports’ (SIRs), this mechanism is limited and hard to use when dealing with the behavior of colleagues.

Both the Lampard and the Shaw reports are concerned with vulnerability, decency, dignity, and welfare. Both perceive a problem in how things are currently run and set out ways of improving them. As others have been before them, they are both highly critical of immigration case work, although Shaw acknowledges that matters have improved.

As previous studies have too, both spend considerable time discussing IRCs in terms of prisons. While they ultimately reject the comparison, insisting that IRCs should not be based on penal institutions, they find some examples of good practice in the prison service that IRCs could learn from such as work and education and healthcare.  They both draw a stark distinction between former prisoners―whom they refer to as ‘time-served foreign national offenders’ (TSNFO)― frequently referring to them as inherently more difficult to manage.  As a result, both reports urge the Home Office to revisit and assess how ex-prisoners are allocated to IRCs.  

Partly reflecting recent events in Yarl’s Wood, the first three recommendations of the Lampard Report concern ex-offenders.  Signaling the importance with which they view this population, they urge Serco, over the next three months to:

  • monitor the numbers of time-served foreign national offenders detained at Yarl’s Wood, and the impact their presence has on the good order of the centre and the safety and security of others. Serco should consult regularly with the Home Office to ensure that only those who do not threaten good order, safety and security are detained at Yarl’s Wood.’ (R1)
  • Serco should continue to press the Home Office to improve the quality and timeliness of information-sharing about time-served foreign national offenders transferred to Yarl’s Wood.’ (R2)
  • Serco should consider with the Home Office the development of suitability criteria for the detention of time-served foreign national offenders at Yarl’s Wood.’ (R3)

Neither report takes an abolitionist stance, offering instead what might be called a plea for moderation as they call for a reduction in numbers and a greater use in alternatives. In part, this decision reflects the remit of their reviews; they were not asked to consider the grounds for detention. In part it seems to reflect their opinion about the necessity for some form of custodial means of managing those facing expulsion.

Both express considerable concern about the provision of activities, the level and quality of healthcare, and the experiences of those with mental health problems. In the first two areas again, the prison looms in the background. Shaw explicitly criticizes the tendency to refer to the ‘regime’ of IRCs, pointing out that word is from the prison arena. At the same time, he finds that Prison Service run establishments, particularly Morton Hall, offer more activities than private sector ones, and urges them all to try harder.

Both reviews document limitations in healthcare provision in its current form, pointing out the extraordinarily high rates of use of healthcare within the IRCs, where up to 90% of those detained are recorded as using this service. Finally, they both also argue for greater transparency in the system. According to them, the current barriers to research and media coverage not only reduce the field of expertise on such places, but has a perverse effect of encouraging suspicion about them. Being more open and transparent and facilitating academic research and community engagement, they both point out, will be of benefit to all.


These two reports build on earlier official studies, including the 2015 report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, and the 2012 study by HMIP and ICIBI review of case-working. They also intersect with academic and clinical studies of detention, finding many familiar problems and experiences.

At the same time, however, they offer new and important detail. While the Shaw report includes useful statistics on the population and on ACDT specifically, the Lampard review paints a detailed picture of the nature, motivations, and tensions within one particular custodial company.  By grounding their analysis in the day to day details of an IRC, they are able to draw larger conclusions that are relevant for other centres too.

In their formal response to the Shaw report, the government has accepted a number of his recommendations. They will bring in a new model of case-working, which they say will speed up the deportation process. They also promise to keep out some of the vulnerable populations Shaw has identified from detention. Together, the government envisages these changes will reduce the overall population. 

Serco, in turn, has increased staffing levels and appointed more female officers. They have altered their shift patterns and introduced specialist staff training on mental health, human trafficking, and safeguarding. They are taking down some of the razor wire and are changing the menus.

These are all welcome developments. It is instructive to see that policy can change. Nonetheless, as I observed in my review of the APPG report last year, I think we need to remain mindful of the potential dangers involved in speeding up the process. Not only can speed make it harder for people to avail themselves of legal protections, but, still, it bypasses questions about the purpose of detention. If it can be done so quickly, then why do it at all?

This final area is one that drifts in and out of focus in both reports. While the authors point to the need for better understanding of the justification and effect of detention, they do not explicitly develop one themselves. Instead, the case lies in the detail. The challenge remains to connect such operational matters with wider questions about justice, tolerance, and belonging. Thinking about them in terms of vulnerability, welfare, staffing, and corporate culture, as these reports do, is an important start. Hopefully in the coming weeks these two reports will generate more engagement and debate.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Bosworth, M. (2016) Immigration Detention in the UK Under Review (Again). Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/01/immigration (Accessed [date]).

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