More ammunition in the fight against the UK’s punitive detention estate

November 8, 2018

Last week the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) heard evidence on immigration detention from a range of experts. Mishka from Freed Voices* saw it as a positive development that reiterated the major concerns with current policies and underlined calls for significant reform.

The JCHR’s evidence session heard from advocacy groups, academics, and representatives from the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) as well as HM Inspectorate of Prisons. This time, the theme of the evidence session was “Should there be independent oversight?” but the committee also asked whether there should be a time limit on immigration detention.

One of the reasons I thought this evidence session important is the panel members who gave evidence on that day. Bella Sankey, Celia Clarke, and Leila Zedah represent well-known immigration detention advocacy groups, Detention Action, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) and UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) respectively. Professor Mary Bosworth has been conducting independent academic research on immigration detention for almost a decade.

In my view, the first part of this evidence session built a solid picture of a number of critical issues with the UK’s current detention estate. The panel members highlighted that there are a number of serious human rights issues, including family separation, inhuman and degrading treatment and barriers to access to justice. The lack of a time limit on detention, one of the key issues that frames every misery around detention, was highlighted as one of the critical issues that need to be addressed promptly. This is why there is such an urgent need to introduce a 28 day time limit.

Deprivation of liberty and lack of access to legal support and justice also received due focus. Celia Clarke emphasised that the decisions to detain someone are blemished with a lack of independent or judicial oversight. Leila Zedah highlighted the complexities and specific safety risks facing LGBTQI people in detention.

Professor Mary Bosworth explained how the lack of judicial oversight gives the Home Office an unprecedented amount of power over the individuals being detained. In the criminal justice system, by contrast, the rule of law acts as a check before someone is deprived of their liberty. This has resulted in a huge power imbalance in the administrative immigration detention system.

As highlighted during this session, it is important to keep in mind that people are incarcerated in immigration detention solely for the administrative convenience of the Home Office. The government has been reiterating that 95% of the people subjected to immigration control are handled in the community. I am not certain how these statistics are calculated; the government has not been clear about this. However, the question remains as to why 5% are detained. There needs to be a much stronger presumption in favour of alternatives to detention, especially given that more than half of the people detained are released back into the community.

The current policy is that the Home Office should detain someone only under exceptional circumstances, as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. Also, there are other safeguards such as Adult at Risk Policy and Rule 35; however, these are also consistently failing. This implies to me that the Home Office is currently addicted to detaining people without giving proper scrutiny to the decision to detain, thereby detaining people arbitrarily. Therefore, my view is that the power to detain should be taken away from the Home Office. There has to be an independent element or judicial oversight taking this decision.

The second part of the session saw evidence from the National Chair of Independent Monitoring Boards Dame Ann Owers, Chair of Yarl’s Wood IMB Jane Leech, and HMIP Inspection Team Leader Hindpal Singh Bhui. These witnesses also had alarming concerns. They did not mention a specific time limit on detention, but all confirmed that a lack of time limit is a major issue. They reiterated the same issues raised by the first panel: the lack of access to legal advice and support; the fact that more than 50% people in detention are eventually being released back into the community, proving IRCs to be unfit for purpose; and the number of vulnerable people in detention who should not be there in the first place.

We’ll have to wait and see what the final outcome of this inquiry will be. However, I am going to be optimistic here, as being optimistic is also important whatever we do in life. We are passing a time period where the chances of significant detention reform is much higher than a few years ago. Therefore, let’s consider this evidence session and this ongoing inquiry as the latest piece of ammunition we can use in the fight against the UK’s punitive detention estate.

*Freed Voices is a group of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of the UK’s detention system. Mishka writes under a pseudonym.


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