The Immigration Bill: An injection of compassion is sorely needed

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Jon Featonby, Parliamentary Manager at Refugee Council and Parliamentary Lead for the Detention Forum. It was first published on the Justice Gap, who are our #Unlocked15 partners.

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Image: Big Ben, Flickr under creative comms licence, Natesh Ramasamy

Thursday, September 17 and another Immigration Bill was published. The ink had barely dried on the Immigration Act 2014 (much of which is yet to be implemented) but here we have another piece of legislation designed, in the Government’s own words, to ‘make the UK a less attractive place for illegal migrants’. In short, it’s an extension of the hostile environment that brought us, amongst other things, the ‘Go Home Vans’ and severe restrictions on appeal rights in immigration cases.

Disappointingly, and despite its 133 pages, the Bill does not reflect either the recent public shows of support from tens of thousands of UK residents that refugees are welcome here, or the growing cross-party political support for a considerable rethink of how and why immigration detention is used, building on the recommendations of the inquiry into immigration detention carried out by the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration.

Indeed, at first glance the Bill would appear to change very little about how immigration detention will operate. There is a section on immigration bail, which, according to the Home Office’s  explanatory notes, is simply a ‘new consolidated framework’.

However, as is so often the case, the devil is in the detail.

It should be noted that the detail is, in at least one important aspect, absent from the Bill. If it becomes law, the Bill will remove Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Predominantly, Section 4 is used to provide accommodation and financial support to people who have had their asylum application refused and have exhausted their rights of appeal. But Section 4 is also used to allow people held in immigration detention to apply for bail.

The use of immigration detention in the UK is subject to very little judicial oversight, with no automatic review by the courts of a decision to detain someone – a decision that can be taken by a relatively junior Home Office official.

It remains up to the person detained to initiate proceedings challenging their detention and predominantly this takes the form of a bail application.

In order to apply for bail, individuals need to be able to provide an address to which they can be bailed to. For some this might be the address of family or friends. For those who don’t have an address to use, they can currently use Section 4 to apply for a bail address, and in most cases these applications are granted. With that address, the individual can then apply for bail and, if the application is granted, can be accommodated there.

The Bill will change all this. It replaces Section 4 with a new form of support for failed asylum seekers. Much of the detail regarding this support is not contained in the Bill but will instead be set out in regulations. This makes it difficult to properly scrutinise the Bill.

Very worryingly, in this new form of support there appears to be no provision for those held in detention to apply for a bail address. The Bill will create a power for the Home Secretary to provide accommodation at an address of her choosing to an individual granted bail. However, this only applies where bail has been granted by the Secretary of State, rather than the courts, and there appears to be no mechanism that would allow an individual to apply for a bail address.

The upshot of this is that it will become far harder for those individuals who don’t have access to other accommodation to apply for and be granted immigration bail. This will almost certainly lead to an increase in long-term detention, as well as the number of individuals detained at any one time. As was clear in the evidence received by the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, detention causes significant and long-lasting damage to the mental health of detainees. This will only be made worse if the power to challenge on-going detention is removed.

It’s also costly to the taxpayer. Detaining someone for a year costs around £36,000, £97 per day. If, as expected, the Immigration Bill results in more people being detained and for longer, the cost of running the detention estate will increase. Additionally, if individuals can’t use bail applications to challenge their detention, other means will need to be adopted, including challenges to the High Court for unlawful detention. Between 2011 and 2014, the UK Government paid out nearly £15 million in compensation for unlawfully detaining people. With individuals increasingly unable to apply for bail, this figure will almost certainly increase.

Detaining more people, for longer periods of time, and reducing the ability for individuals to challenge their detention completely goes against the main recommendations of the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, recommendations that the House of Commons endorsed just a week before the Immigration Bill was published.

It was, therefore, at least somewhat encouraging that during the Second Reading debate on the Bill, a number of MPs from the Conservatives, Labour, the Scottish Nationalist Party, and the Liberal Democrats highlighted the omission of a time-limit on immigration detention. In response, the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire again raised the review being carried out by Stephen Shaw as an example of the Government taking action towards reforming the use of detention. Yet, as has been pointed out several times before, the terms of reference for the Shaw Review were drawn specifically to exclude examination of the decision to detain.

The Bill passed its Second Reading on 13 October, and so it will now go onto the next stage where a group of MPs will scrutinise it line-by-line. This will give MPs the opportunity to question Government Ministers on why they are seeking to restrict the ability of individuals to challenge their detention and to renew calls for the introduction of a maximum time-limit.

During the Second Reading debate, the Conservative MP for Bedford, Richard Fuller, lamented the lack of compassion in the Bill. It is a sentiment I certainly share. Hopefully, MPs like Richard Fuller and the growing number of others calling for immigration detention reform can manage to inject at least a little compassion into the Bill as it progresses through parliament.

Experiencing Democracy Up-Close and Personal – #UnlocktheDebate

[Image: Seddiq, Sonja, Maddy and Paul Blomfield MP]

Sonja Miley who works at Waging Peace – a human rights organisation which campaigns against genocide and systematic human rights violations in Sudan, and an active member of the Detention Forum – writes about her experience of watching the parliamentary debate on immigration detention live from the gallery on 10th September 2015.

Experiencing Democracy Up-Close and Personal 

As we approached Parliament on September 10th, I felt a sense of awe and distinct privilege, as if I was entering someplace sacred that carried the voices of the people in the echoes of the tall ceilings and long corridors. It was already exciting to think we were going to attempt to sit in the gallery and watch the MPs debate the recommendations of the Detention Inquiry report, the very same report so many of our colleagues, clients and friends worked so hard to put together.

It became a thousand times more humbling an experience when Seddiq, a Sudanese asylum seeker who himself spent nine months in immigration detention, said as we walked towards the security tent to gain access to the main lobby of Parliament, “this could never happen in my country”.

Wow I thought. Just wow. My liberty and democratic freedoms are so precious. Here we are freely and openly walking into the heart of government in the UK, without fear of persecution, without fear full stop.

Once Maddy, Seddiq and I passed through the security station and x-ray machines, we came upon a unique outside photo op with Big Ben in the background from inside Parliament grounds. Seddiq was visibly proud to have his picture taken there, in fact, so were Maddy and I.

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The approach into the main lobby of the Commons is a breathtaking experience. As we opened the doors to one of the most magnificent buildings in the world, we were greeted by clerks with yellow bows and directed through the main lobby up the stairs where Nelson Mandela is memorialised and honoured.

After turning left through the double doors and walking down a long ornate and historically decorated corridor, we were greeted by more Commons staff handing out tickets to the public viewing gallery. We were amazed at the surprisingly smooth process. With our tickets in hand, we were instructed to sit on the benches and wait to be called into the public gallery area. After 10 minutes or so, House of Commons staff swiftly issued us past the central lobby where much to-ing and fro-ing happens with Ministers, members of the public, aides, and journalists all busily preparing for their exchanges. There’s almost sensory overload as we tried to take in the grandness of our surroundings.

Overhead in the central lobby is a beautiful detailed chandelier which is almost overlooked with so many other objects of beauty and history to take in. Inside central lobby is a staff desk where clerks call MPs in their offices when constituents arrive for pre-planned meetings or even impromptu sessions known as green carding*. Almost opposite this desk is a stamp collector’s dream as the central lobby is home to a small public working post office.

Leaving the central lobby we were asked to fill in cards with a few simple demographic details and proceed up five or six flights of narrow stairs. At the top of the staircase was a cloakroom just outside the public gallery where we were told all items, including food, drink, phones and other electronic items, must be checked. The only things we could take into the gallery were a pen and paper and leaflets provided by the House of Commons with explanations and pictures of what were where about to see.

According to the leaflet “the public gallery of the Chamber is accessible when the House is sitting, via the Cromwell Green Visitor Entrance. Visitors watch proceedings from behind a security screen installed in 2006. Sound is provided through a speaker system.”
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I have to admit, it was all very exciting to be so close to the process of democracy. Sitting in the public gallery we were there, right there, witnessing first-hand how it is possible to somehow hold MPs accountable to their constituents by keeping a watchful eye on them. I wondered how many people in the UK have actually taken up this tremendous opportunity to use their voices and engage with the democratic process so closely. What’s more, how many citizens even know they are allowed to get this close to the action?
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Escorted into the gallery, we sat down on green cushioned benches exactly like those you see in the Commons. We had a bird’s eye view of everything in front of us, including the number of MPs actually present. It was initially disappointing to see only a couple of handfuls of MPs, and even more disappointing to witness no female presence sitting on the side of the government. That did change slightly over the course of the three hour debate on immigration detention.

There was certainly much activity inside the Commons, with frequent comings and goings, side chats with the Speaker, MPs reading their phones and some even talking amongst themselves. Television monitors lined both walls in the gallery which were helpful to reconfirm the name of each MP speaking at any given time.

The debate was introduced by Paul Blomfield, Labour MP, Sheffield Central and was then welcomed by David Burrowes, Conservative MP, Enfield Southgate.

What followed was extraordinary in the grand scheme of things and deserves to be highlighted as an incredible next step in revamping immigration detention in the UK. Over this three hour period all 25 MPs present unanimously agreed and accepted the recommendations of the Detention Inquiry report.

Passionate and articulate cross party arguments for radical change by MPs were followed by fiercely enthusiastic whoops and thunderous applause from the gallery. Clerks in the gallery stepped in twice to silence the unbridled excitement, threatening to close the gallery if silence was not restored immediately. I looked at Seddiq and smiled. He gently and softly met my eyes and warmly smiled back. For Seddiq and others like him in the gallery, this must have felt like vindication.

Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done. Yes, there was a lack of the same spirit of change in James Brokenshire’s (the Home Office Minister) rebuttal, but something big happened during that debate we simply cannot afford to forget. There was unity and agreement, and MP after MP stood up and argued the inhumanity of the current system.

David Burrowes said afterwards during an informal chat outside the Commons that unanimous agreement has never before happened in a Commons debate on immigration.

Unprecedented cross party support means there is increasing pressure on the government to act on the collective voice of the MPs who themselves acted on the collective voices of countless constituents and individual organisations who help those in and those who’ve been in immigration removal centres. When voice after voice becomes louder and stronger, and added to the many voices raised before, may we all feel encouraged, empowered and dare I say it, even excited by the experience of engaging with the democratic process.

After all, for people like Seddiq “this could never happen in my country”.

*Green Carding your MP

Turn up at the Houses of Parliament, go to St Stephen’s Entrance and ask to go to the Central Lobby to green card the MP for your constituency.  Go to the reception desk in Central Lobby and ask for a green card. Fill in your name, address, your MP and the purpose of the visit. They insist on having your address so they can check that you are visiting the MP who represents your constituency. It is essential that you give a clear reason for ‘Purpose of Visit’. This is because if the MP is unable to meet you on the day, they have to write to you at the address provided, to respond to your query.

Once you have filled in the card and handed it back, staff will go and search for your MP. If your MP is found and comes to Central Lobby, your name will be announced over the loudspeaker. It’s usually difficult to find the MP, so if the MP has not turned up within 30 minutes, it’s unlikely they’re going to show at all.