It is now a month since the election. A month since the heady days and minutes leading up to the exit polls. When any government that seemed conceivable would have featured parties committed to detention reform and a time limit.
So we have had a month to adjust to the reality of a majority Conservative government. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru all committed to detention reform in the election campaign. The Conservatives did not.
So, is it back to square one for detention campaigning? Do we face five more years of struggle against a government committed to making life even worse for people in or threatened by detention? Did we lose?
The Queen’s Speech gives little grounds for optimism. We are to have another Immigration Bill – A sign of a return to annual bills, after the relative drought of the coalition? Words are not minced: the Bill will be about ‘dealing with those who should not be here, by rooting out illegal immigrants and boosting removals and deportations.’ It will extend ‘deport first, appeal later’ to all immigration appeals where it would not cause serious harm, and require all foreign offenders on bail to be tagged.
No mention of detention, however. An inveterate optimist could point out that, for a foreign offender to be tagged, they have to be out of detention.
And in fact, the Conservatives recent messaging on detention has been at odds with their tone on immigration in general. Last week Richard Fuller MP, a Conservative member of the Parliamentary inquiry, asked Theresa May what she was doing to move away from the ‘far too pervasive’ use of detention. The Home Secretary responded that ‘the Home Office is looking at what estate is required and at the whole question of periods of detention.’
While no details are available of what this ‘looking at’ involves, it seems to be having results. The Parliamentary inquiry only published its report on 3 March. In the two months left before the election, the Home Office cancelled expansion of Campsfield and announced the closure of Haslar. Instead of expanding the detention estate to 5000, as previously promised, numbers were falling. Lord Bates told the House of Lords, in a debate following the Parliamentary inquiry, that the ‘direction of travel’ is towards reduced use of detention.
This is why the election result should not be cause for despair for those of us who care about detention. It is not that we won the argument with Labour and the Lib Dems, but failed with the Conversatives: we are winning the argument overall. The inquiry was a cross-party undertaking, with Tories Richard Fuller and David Burrowes amongst its most active protagonists. The campaign for a time limit has focused as much on the Conservatives as the other parties, with significant results.
Crucially, on detention, unlike most other progressive causes, austerity is on our side. The new government is committed to eye-watering cuts across government. Abundant evidence has demonstrated that detention is amongst the most inefficient wastes of public money. The Home Office will be choosing between laying off many more civil servants, or making savings on bricks and mortar. Morton Hall, the Verne and Dover are detention centres run by the Prison Service. They could be handed back to the Ministry of Justice, and disappear from the Home Office budget, tomorrow.
Detention is not going to go away as an issue in this Parliament. The SNP have made an early bid for leadership of the case for reform with an Early Day Motion calling for the closure of detention centres and the development of alternatives. Could a newly confident Conservative government, having seen off the threat from UKIP, be the government to take the definitive step away from pervasive detention?