Last night the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment to the Immigration Bill that sought to address the lack of judicial oversight on immigration detention in the UK.
Peers voted 187 to 170 in support of Lord Ramsbotham’s amendment (see paragraph 84, here), which proposes that a person may not be detained for a period longer than 28 days; or for periods of longer than 28 days in aggregate. It is important to note however, that the clause still allows the Secretary of State to apply to extend detention beyond 28-days on the basis that “exceptional circumstances of the case require extended detention”. The amendment also excludes from its protection foreign nationals who have served a prison sentence of 12 months or more.
The UK remains an outlier when it comes to immigration detention. Not only do we detain more migrants than any other country in Europe, we are also alone in detaining them indefinitely, without time-limit, with extremely limited oversight, sometimes for years on end. Detention Action has long advocated for the introduction of a maximum 28-day time-limit for all those detained, in line with regional and international best-practice, and increased judicial scrutiny.
Yesterday’s vote in the Lords clearly fell short in regard the former, whilst positively addressing the latter. Nonetheless, the volume of support for a time-limit among peers was a notable aspect of the debate and we welcome the fact this pernicious abuse of civil liberties is getting the parliamentary attention it deserves. The amendment itself is also another strong indication of the increasing political recognition that detention requires greater oversight, and that such oversight requires a concrete legislative change.
This was perhaps best encapsulated by Lord Brown, who was previously opposed to introduction of a time-limit, but who took this opportunity to state;
“I have come round to the view that something broadly along the lines of this amendment would be better—namely, to have some time limit, together with express provision for extension by the tribunals or, as the case may be, by SIAC, on application by the Home Secretary. I have been persuaded by the great weight of informed criticism generally levelled at the existing system: from the APPG’s inquiry and report last year into the use of immigration detention and the subsequent debate in this House, as mentioned by the noble Lord Ramsbotham; the recent report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons on Harmondsworth; and my own recognition of the basic principle that administrative detention ought ordinarily to be subject to close scrutiny and control and not left as presently it is merely to bail applications and the courts’ general supervisory jurisdiction, with all the increasing problems that we know about of obtaining legal aid, and so forth, for such challenges.”
Reflecting on the amendment, the Freed Voices group were quick to acknowledge the positives whilst highlighting their opposition to its exclusionary framing:
“It’s a big step forward for the #Time4aTimeLimit campaign. But it is only a step and we have to recognise it as that. Between us, the Freed Voices group have lost over 20 years to immigration detention but most of our group wouldn’t have benefited from this amendment if it were law. Indefinite detention was an abuse of our universal human rights. The time-limit needed to address this abuse has to be universal too – for everyone, and not just some.” Fred, six months in detention.
“Immigration is Immigration. Asylum is asylum. A criminal court is criminal court. They are three separate things. But in this country, the government seem very happy to confuse them all. Once you’ve served your sentence, you’ve paid your debt to society, you should be done. Instead, migrants with a conviction to their name serve double sentences…Life sentences, really.” Kasonga, twenty-one months in detention.
“Everyone in detention is the same – everyone in there is criminalised, everyone there is suffering, everyone there is human. You cannot tell difference between people inside when you are inside. It should be the same from the outside. When we talk about time-limit we talk about time-limit for all.” John, three months in detention.
What is abundantly clear is that the fight to push through the recommendations for fundamental reform outlined in the Parliamentary Inquiry on Detention and, more recently, in the Home Office-commissioned Shaw Review, continues apace. There is still much work to be done to achieve a time-limit which, in the words of our friends at Right to Remain, ‘leaves no one behind’.