Parliamentary meeting on immigration detention on 16 November – is your MP attending?

This year’s Unlocking Detention’s theme is taking action, and the Detention Forum is supporting APPG on Refugees’ parliamentary meeting on immigration detention on 16 November. Do you think your MP is coming? It probably depends on whether you will be urging them to do so or not. Will you be contacting your MP? Will you be taking this action?
Mishka, of Freed Voices have earlier told Unlocking Detention why we all need to speaking to our MPs.

And Jon Featonby explained why political pressure must be ramped up now. Yes, now.
You can find out contact details of your MP (and their activities in Parliament) and send them your messages directly here.
Below is the information about the parliamentary meeting, which you can pass onto them, or cut and past as you wish. Don’t forget to add your own message! Tell them why it is important for you that they take action on this matter. This parliamentary meeting is open to MPs and peers. Here is also a copy of the letter the Detention Forum will be sending out to MPs and peers that we are in touch with.
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APPG on Refugees meeting on immigration detention

Thursday 16 November 2017

10:30 -11:30 The Grimond Room in Portcullis House

Immigration detention has been regularly in the media spotlight in recent months, for tragic and disturbing reasons. The Panorama documentary into Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, broadcast in September, led the Home Affairs Select Committee to hold an inquiry. The Panorama revelations were quickly followed by deaths of migrants in detention. On 7 September, a 28-year old Polish man died as a result of a suicide attempt in Colnbrook detention centre. On 19 September, a Chinese national died in Dungavel detention centre in Scotland. And on 3 October, a Jamaican man died in Morton Hall detention centre.
The purpose of the meeting is to provide space for MPs and peers to discuss what further steps can be taken to make progress towards fundamental detention reform. Calls for a time limit and detention reform have gained increasing momentum over the last few years, starting with the inquiry of the APPGs on Refugees and Migration into the use of immigration detention (2015). Subsequently, the first Shaw Review in 2016 and debates during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016 led the Government to make various promises and concessions, few of which have yet been implemented. At present, Stephen Shaw is holding a follow-up review to assess progress. Yet despite substantial public and political pressure and a ministerial commitment to reform, migrants held in immigration detention have seen little tangible change.
The latest statistics shows that the UK continues to routinely detain large numbers of migrants for lengthy periods, including vulnerable people. In the last year, nearly 28,000 migrants entered the detention estate; more than one in three were detained longer than 28 days. In the last quarter, 52% of migrants who left detention were released into to the community, not removed. As at 30 June 2017, the longest length of time a person had been detained was 1,514 days, in excess of four years.
During the meeting, parliamentarians will also have the opportunity to be briefed on recent developments in immigration detention, the follow-up Shaw Review and findings from recent and forthcoming research reports. Speakers will include Women for Refugee Women, Freed Voices (a group of migrants who have collectively lost over 20 years to immigration detention), Detention Action and Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. Paul Blomfield MP will be chairing the meeting.
Please RSVP to detentionforum (at) gmail.com
 

Why political pressure needs to be ramped up now

The Detention Forum which runs Unlocking Detention is a network of many groups who have been working together to challenge UK’s immigration detention policy and practice.  Jon Featonby, one of its Coordination Group members, explains why now is the time for everyone to start taking action against detention. 
There can be no better time for #Unlocked17 to have started. The next six months are crucial in terms of opportunities to push for reform of a system which, as Unlocked will show, is broken.
And the theme of #Unlocked17 could not be more appropriate. To take maximum advantage of the opportunities that are coming up, ‘Action’ is required: Action to make sure more people know about the horrors of the detention system; Action to shape public opinion; and Action to ensure those with the power to change the system know that there is a demand for reform.
One of the central reasons why the next six months is such an important period is that Stephen Shaw will be undertaking his follow-up review. Shaw, a former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, was first commissioned to carry out a review in early 2015 by Theresa May, then the Home Secretary. With a remit to look specifically – and perhaps limitedly – at the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, Shaw spent several months visiting detention centres and gathering evidence.
When Shaw’s first report was published in January 2016, it ran to some 346 pages, and contained 64 recommendations. The recommendations cover a wide range of elements of detention practice, but his conclusion was clear:
“There is too much detention; detention is not a particularly effective means of ensuring that those with no right to remain do in fact leave the UK; and many practices and processes associated with detention are in urgent need of reform.”
The report was published mid-way through the Immigration Act 2016’s progress through Parliament, and informed much of the debate on detention at the time. In the House of Lords, the Government were defeated by proposals to bring in a time limit and to end the detention of pregnant women. Although the Government were ultimately able to block these changes, it had to agree to some significant reforms – the introduction of automatic judicial oversight (albeit only after four months of detention), and a time limit of 7 days on the length of time a pregnant woman can be detained.
It also necessitated the Government committing to bringing back Stephen Shaw to carry out a follow up review “in order to assess progress against the key actions from his previous report.”
Shaw is expected to submit the outcome of his review to the Home Office early next year. This presents both an opportunity and a risk: An opportunity to highlight the fundamental reforms that are still needed and to create an environment where change can happen; a risk that if Shaw’s report is received by the Home Office in a context devoid of the wider calls for change, then Ministers will not feel under pressure to act.
This is why action is so important now and in the coming months. In particular, there is a need to highlight the key conclusion that Stephen Shaw made the first time around – that there is too much detention – and the Government’s commitment in response that they would introduce reforms that would “lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal, in turn improving the welfare of those detained.”
Nearly two years on from that commitment, according to the latest statistics around 3,000 people are still in detention at any time and nearly 30,000 people were detained over the last year. No more can the Government tinker around the edges – it’s time for meaningful reform.
Parliament is ultimately responsible for the laws that govern the use of detention in the UK, and parliament should be one of the focal points for action. This includes not just telling MPs and peers what the problems are, but also giving them some of the solutions.
Calls for a maximum time limit of 28 days have gathered momentum in recent years, and the need for a time limit is still evident. Not only would a time limit end the harmful and arbitrary system of indefinite detention, but it would also necessitate the Home Office rethinking how and why they detain people.
A time limit should be coupled with the greater use of community alternatives to detention. Community-based alternatives, that allow people to remain in their communities while their immigration cases are resolved, with case-management support that places people at the centre of the process, would enable the reduction in detention that Shaw called for and the Government have said they aspire to.
An increasing number of MPs know that detention is an issue, and that is largely down to the number of people who now contact them to say they want to see change. This not only needs to be kept up in coming months, but ramped up.
Whether it’s writing to your MP, asking to meet them in their constituency surgery, or simply tweeting at them (why not tell them to look at the #Unlocked17 hashtag? Or a do a ‘selfie’ for Unlocking Detention?), we can all do something.
You can ask your MP to write to the Home Secretary asking her to introduce a time limit on detention, ask a question in parliament, or sign up to this Early Day Motion calling for reform. There will also be some specific MP-focused actions being launched in the very near future, so watch this space.
Over the next six months, we want MPs to know more and more about why systemic reform is needed, and that another way is possible. So why delay, take action today. And tweet at us and let us know what action you have taken.
 

Marking the Home Office’s homework on immigration detention – urgent improvement needed

By Jon Featonby, parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council and parliamentary lead for the Detention Forum.
STRICTLY COME DANCING
As Advent began last year, I was in the Houses of Parliament as part of Sanctuary in Parliament II. On that same day, MPs were debating what is now the Immigration Act 2016. In particular, they were debating an amendment that was aimed at introducing a time limit on how long someone can be detained for immigration purpose.
The response from the Minister speaking for the Government that day was that those MPs who supported that amendment — and those of us who were calling for detention reform elsewhere in Parliament — needed to wait for Stephen Shaw’s review into the welfare of people in detention to be published.
Stephen Shaw’s review was indeed published on 14 January this year. In it, Shaw made 64 recommendations, many more radical than had been expected, in a report that runs to some 349 pages. On the day it was published, the then Immigration Minister James Brokenshire set out the Government’s response in a written statement.
That response ran to about one and a half sides of A4, so it hardly dealt in depth with all the issues raised by Shaw. But what it did do at least was set out a general idea of what the Government’s intentions were. These intentions included introducing a broader definition of those at risk of harm within detention, carrying out an assessment of the mental health needs of people in detention, and introducing a new system of case management for carrying out case reviews.
The expectation, the Minister said, was that these changes would “lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal”. He added that the Government would also publish their plans for the “future shape and size of the detention estate.”
As we come towards the end of 2016, how far have those expectations been met?
What is true is that fewer people are being detained. In the last three months of 2015, 7702 people were detained. Between July and September 2016, this decreased a little, down to 7196 people. But, shockingly, what the Home Office’s own statistics show is that despite the reduction in the number of people entering detention, those who are in detention are being held for longer. At the end of December 2015, the month before the Shaw Review was published, 453 people who were being detained had been there for longer than 4 months. Nine months later, that number was 553.
Not only are people being detained for longer, but the impact of that is that despite fewer people entering detention, the number of people detained at any one time is actually higher than it was. On December 31 2015, 2,607 people were being detained. By the end of September 2016, this had jumped to just below 3,000.
Additionally, despite the Home Office’s continued instance that detention is used “where it is necessary for the purposes of removal”, fewer than half of those people who left detention in the last three months for which we have the statistics did so because they were removed. For the majority, after they left detention they returned to their communities. Why were they ever locked up then? you may well ask. Why indeed.
What reforms that have been introduced have been flawed: the new “Adults at Risk” policy uses a definition of torture so narrow it excludes acts perpetrated by groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State; the Government introduced a new time limit on the detention of pregnant women but then refused to issue information about how many pregnant women were still being detained; and the provision in the Immigration Act 2016 that would provide automatic bail hearings after four months of being detained is yet to be enacted.
So returning to the expectation that “a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal”, so far the Government are coming up short. What about those plans for the future of the detention estate?
Well, since the Shaw Review was published there have been announced closures of Dover IRC and Cedars detention centre, as well as the proposal to close Dungavel IRC in Scotland. But there is not an overarching strategy.
Back in January, the Government said they would publish their plans as part of the Immigration Enforcement Business plan for 2016/17. With four months to go of 2016/17, there is still no sight of that plan. In September, the new Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill told the Home Affairs Select Committee, that the strategy was “in front of Ministers”. At the end of November, the line is now that it will be published “in due course”.
An increase in the number of people in detention; no reduction in the length of people are being detained for; no plan for the future of the detention estate. That, so far, is the outcome of the Government’s response to Shaw’s review.
For those of you who have been following Unlocking Detention this year, you will know all too well the harm detention inflicts not just on individuals, but on their families and communities as well. The Government cannot wait to follow through on their commitments – they need to act now.
That is why I encourage you to write to your MP today – you can find some suggested text here – and ask them to call on the Home Secretary to take urgent steps. And if you can, go along to your MP’s surgery (you can usually find details of them on their website) and talk to them about why that Government has to act and ask them to raise the issue with the Home Secretary. So stop reading this, and go and tell your MP what they need to do!

Take action

  • write to your MP.  You can find out who your MP is here.  You can use your own words, or you may find the suggested text here helpful.
  • make an appointment to meet your MP at their surgery and ask him/her to take action (if you feel shy about this or need help, you can tweet at us @DetentionForum and we will do our best to support you)
  • you can also tweet your MP with your request. Find out if your MP is on Twitter here.

Let us know if you hear back! Tweet @detentionforum or email detentionforum@gmail.com if you’re not on Twitter.

Is there to be a “silver lining”? Detention reform and the Immigration Bill

This article was written for Unlocking Detention by Jon Featonby.  Jon is parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council and parliamentary lead for the Detention Forum.  This article was originally published by our #Unlocked15 partners, Justice Gap.

On 1 December, I, along with over 150 other people, made my way to the Houses of Parliament to celebrate Sanctuary in Parliament II. Organised by City of Sanctuary, and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, the event brought people together from all over the UK to call on parliamentarians to do more to welcome refugees.

SanctuaryAs those in the committee room where Sanctuary in Parliament was being held heard from people who have been on the sharp end of the UK Government’s intransigent and inhumane immigration system — joined by a stream of MPs who dipped in-and-out in between other commitments — downstairs in the House of Commons the Immigration Bill was being debated.

I’ve written previously about how this bill is an extension of the Government’s “hostile environment” agenda. It extends the right to rent provisions introduced in the last Immigration Act that, when piloted, made landlords far more likely to discriminate against anyone who is not obviously British. The bill also removes support for families who have come to the UK to seek asylum but who have been unsuccessful, an example of the Government using enforced destitution to encourage people to leave the country.

The bill does nothing to address the many concerns created by the enforcement-led nature of Home Office policy, including the UK’s reliance on wide-scale use of immigration detention. Detention was one of the central themes of Sanctuary in Parliament this year and one of those to speak was William of Freed Voices, who had been detained for two and half months before being released and granted refugee status. William asked, quite rightly, what was his detention for?

At the same time that William was asking that question, downstairs MPs were calling on the Government to change the way detention is used. MPs from the Conservatives, the SNP and Labour all pushed for reform, as the House of Commons debated several amendments that had been tabled aiming to right some of the wrongs.

For much of the afternoon, reform of the way the UK uses immigration detention dominated debates, reflecting Labour MP Keir Starmer’s remark that detention “is a matter of increasing concern to many in this House and beyond.”  Most of the amendments sought to address the lack of a time limit on how long people can be held in detention, building on the recommendation of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention that no one should be detained for longer than 28 days.

Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s immigration spokesperson, said the possibility of introducing a time limit on detention would be a “piece of silver lining on the dark cloud represented by this Bill”, while the Conservative MP Richard Fuller argued for reform saying that detention “has moved from being a part of the immigration system to being the substantive and default position.”

Another Conservative MP David Burrowes, who like Fuller served on the parliamentary inquiry panel, responded to a claim by one of his party colleagues that a time limit would be arbitrary by pointing out that in fact “it is arbitrary to have an indefinite time in detention”. It is, said Burrowes, “an issue of fairness and due process.”

So how did the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire respond?

The answer would seem to be “not yet”.

In his reply, Brokenshire pointed to the review that Stephen Shaw has carried out into the welfare of people held in detention. This review has, Ministers have admitted, been submitted to the Home Office who are deciding on their response before publishing it. Brokenshire promised that it would be published in time for the House of Lords to take it into consideration when they debate the bill in detail in the New Year, but even so we know that the idea of a time limit was outside the review’s scope.

The Immigration Minister also stated that detention “has to have removal at its focus” and should be used “sparingly and for the shortest period necessary”. This is also what Home Office guidance says. Yet, as the parliamentary inquiry found, practice does not reflect policy. The majority of people who leave detention are, like William, released into the community rather than removed. The parliamentary inquiry found the longer people are detained, the less likely they are to be removed.

Brokenshire announced that as well as the Shaw Review, the Home Office are conducting an internal review “in the light of our focus on efficiency and effectiveness”. More details of what this review looks like are likely to be forthcoming, but it may be too much to hope that issues of dignity and fairness are among its central themes.

So what’s next?

The Bill now makes its way to the House of Lords, where peers will hold their Second Reading debate on 22 December. In-depth scrutiny of the Bill will then take place in the New Year. Peers could do worse than to hear William’s words when talking about his time being detained without a time limit:

“When I looked forward there was nothing”.

Unlocking Detention 'visits' Colnbrook

The latest stop on the #Unlocked15 tour was Colnbrook detention centre, near Heathrow airport.  The virtual visit fell during a very busy week in the fight to end indefinite detention, with both Sanctuary in Parliament (organised by City of Sanctuary) and the report stage of the Immigration Bill in the House of Commons.

Immigration detention was a key issue at both of these parliamentary events. The Sanctuary in Parliament event was raising awareness of destitution, detention, and the need to provide safe and legal routes for refugees.

Eiri Ohtani of the Detention Forum asked everyone at the Sanctuary in Parliament event to show their support for people currently held in indefinite detention, and this is what happened:

Sanctuary

Although detention was notable in its omission from the 2015 Immigration Bill, much of the report stage debate focused on indefinite detention with key amendments calling for a time-limit on detention to be introduced which received cross-party support.

Colnbrook detention centre certainly epitomises many of the injustices of the UK’s detention regime.

Many of our tweets features photos by Nana Varveropoulou and people detained in Colnbrook themselves, part of a photo project by Varveropoulou to try and show what Colnbrook is really like, from the inside. “There are no windows, no wind”.

For the Unlocking Detention ‘visit’ to Colnbrook, John wrote a letter.  John, a member of the Freed Voices group, wrote a letter to Colnbrook, where he was detained for three and a half months.

Dear Colnbrook,

I’ve got a few questions for you in relation to the three and a half months you held me in detention.

John signed off his letter:

Goodbye Colnbrook. I hope I can clear your horror from my memory. I hope we never meet again.

Read John’s letter here.


We also heard from Danae, who works for Detention Action and supports people detained in Colnbrook.

I first visited Colnbrook 5 years ago, when I was volunteering at one of Detention Action’s workshops. What struck me most back then, was the number of high security doors we came across; the electric gates, the weird-shaped keys, the big fat locks on every door, and the dense barbed wire that sat on the thick tall walls surrounding Colnbrook. I could not understand why these men were deemed so dangerous so as to justify the level of security.

Continuing #Unlocked15’s theme of how detention affects communities across the UK, we heard from South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), on the impact of detention on communities in Sheffield:

The Home Office South Yorkshire asylum reporting centre is now at Vulcan House in Sheffield, on the banks of the River Don. Except for temporary holding cells beneath Vulcan House there is no immigration detention centre in South Yorkshire. The nearest is Morton Hall in Lincolnshire. For people seeking asylum who are obliged to report to Vulcan House each visit carries with it the threat that they will be detained. And the Home Office are keen to reinforce this fear. ‘I’m always sick… the week before I go to sign’, Pride from Cameroon explained. Mohammed from Sudan couldn’t sleep the night before his reporting day at Vulcan House and he packs all his immigration case papers in a rucksack each time he has to go to report.


We finished up the week with a live Q and A with Sergey, currently detained in Colnbrook.


Sergey’s descriptions of the impact of detention on him and his family were tough to hear, but provided vital honesty about just how harmful detention is.  Read the full Q and A here.

Taking detention drama straight to the heart of Parliament

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by John Tomlinson of Strawberry Blond Curls Theatre Company, (@SBC_Theatre) who performed their play ‘Tanja’ at this week’s Sanctuary in Parliament event.

sbct

We, Strawberry Blonde Curls Theatre Company, are John Tomlinson (that’s me) and Rosie MacPherson. We’ve been working together for about five years now. I’m a producer and Rosie is a brilliant writer and award-winning actor. We’re a company that are always going to make important political work that comes from real stories and take them around the country to raise awareness and start conversations.

We had a once in a lifetime opportunity to take our political drama straight to the heart of Parliament this week…we performed ‘Tanja,’ our play about immigration detention for ‘Sanctuary in Parliament’, an event organised by the City of Sanctuary movement to tell MPs about their work in welcoming asylum seekers and refugees.  This year it coincided with the Report Stage of the 2015 Immigration Bill, so MPs were able to go straight from seeing our play to the debate on the floor of the House…

We couldn’t quite believe it either but, for a short time, we had the undivided (we hope) attention of the room, which was full of MPs and key figures explaining to them what the refugee crisis really looks like and how they can change hundreds of people’s lives. It’s the most important thing we’ve ever been involved in, so we did everything we could  to make sure we engaged, enlightened and educate people through theatre and storytelling.

How did we get to this? Well, we’ve always created political theatre. The work we make has always been in response to what we see in the world and how we can put it right, together, little by little. Opening up conversations is why we make theatre and they’re mostly hard-hitting dramas. We’ve been lucky to have lots of companies, venues, partners and funders who support what we do. This one is much the same, but it’s never been so real.

‘Tanja’ is a drama about a woman. She’s an individual and she stands for and represents a whole load of women who have, and continue to, suffer.

Set in her room at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, this is her story, her life, her love of culture and music, her (despite everything) love of England and its quirky eccentricities, and the abuse she has suffered in her quest for refuge.

When we, including the brilliant Hannah Butterfield who we’re making the show with, took to that committee room on Tuesday, we did it because we think we can make a difference, no matter how small. We hope you tell someone about what’s going on at Yarl’s Wood and we hope you research more about the women in there and tell your MP why it’s so important.

Theatre is reactive in its nature. This one has a good chance to actually make a change. We’ve got a massive opportunity and we’re grateful, but we won’t rest until this is settled. We’ll make, rehearse, tour, talk and shout about it for a long time. We work in an industry of make believe, but not this – this is now, this is real. Let’s challenge the injustices experienced by women who seek asylum in the UK.

Tuesday was the most important day of my life. I’ve never felt such compassion and a connection with amazing people who are fighting for justice. We all feel empowered and were overwhelmed with the response to our piece. It feels like we have the blessing of those people, many of which have suffered first hand, to go and tell the stories to everyone, whether it be in a theatre or in the street. We’re part of this movement, whole heartedly.

Thanks for reading, now over to you to tell someone else.


 

All eyes on amendment 32: time to stop the same trends repeating

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Eiri Ohtani, coordinator of the Detention Forum.

chart

A sense of deja vu

The latest statistics on the government’s use of immigration detention released yesterday show a worrying 11% increase in the number of people entering the detention estate in the UK.

For the year ending September 2015, a total of 32,741 people were detained, an increase of 3,250 people from the previous period (29,491).

Yet, the proportion of people leaving detention to be removed from the UK has continued to decrease.

Only 47% of people were removed from detention in the year ending September 2015, meaning that 53% of those who left detention returned to their community.

A sense of deja vu?

We find the same trend, again and again, each time the official statistics on detention are released.

Detention up, removals down.

And yet again, these statistical figures raise a series of political questions.

Why are these people detained in the first place, when so many of them are released back to the community anyway, at vast financial and human cost?

Could their detention not have been avoided, bearing in mind the negative impact of immigration detention on individuals’ well-being as well as the devastating impact on their families, friends and communities?

Another question these statistics force us to ask is whether it is indeed necessary to maintain the current size of the detention estate.

The statistics show that many incidents of deprivation of liberty were pointless from the government’s point of view, as they do not result in removals.

Indeed, closing down detention centres is not an entirely unfamiliar idea.

Haslar Immigration Removal Centre (160 beds) shut its doors earlier this year and now stands empty.  The closure of Dover Immigration Removal Centre (316 beds) was also announced just last month.

It is therefore possible to close down more detention centres, save money and reinvest that money to improve the quality of decision making and support people in the community.

At the moment, however, the government appears to be concentrating on getting bidders for detention centre contracts to undercut each other, possibly at the expense of the quality of services that are available to people who are in detention.  The cost of detention per day has now gone down to £90.41 from £91.61 since June 2015. The National Audit Office is currently investigating the tendering of contracts for Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, and the issue of the costs is likely to come under some scrutiny.

The Immigration Bill

These statistics were announced just as the Immigration Bill 2015 is reaching its report stage on Tuesday 1st December.

Of the numerous amendments to the Bill which have been submitted, many deal with pertinent detention issues, including the detention of vulnerable people and provision for automatic bail hearings.
amendment32

All eyes are on Amendment 32, which would introduce a 28 day limit on the length of time the Home Office can keep someone in immigration detention.  It is an impressive display of consensus across MPs from different political parties, including all the main opposition front-benches, who do not necessary agree on general immigration policies.  It also reflects the main recommendation made by the cross-party panel who conducted an eight-month long parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention.

Another interesting development is New Clause 13, which creates an obligation for the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of immigration detention.

This new clause reflects:

“the unanimous agreement of the House of Commons to the recommendations of the joint APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration inquiry into immigration detention” and “requires the Secretary of State to appoint an independently-chaired panel to consider the issues raised therein and report to Parliament within three months of Schedule 7 to the Bill coming into force.”

This Bill, another attempt to create an even more “hostile environment” for our community members who don’t happen to have a British passport, is expected to reach the House of Lords before Christmas.

The heightened discomfort with indefinite detention, a legacy of the Parliamentary Inquiry both in Parliament and in civil society organisations, will certainly ensure that the focus on detention will continue in House of Lords, whether the government likes it or not.

If a time limit on immigration detention were to be introduced, the detention regime will have to look radically different.  We are likely to see a far smaller detention estate, with far fewer people detained for shorter periods.  Of course, as one of the MPs said during the course of the Immigration Bill committee debate, the introduction of a time limit does not go far enough in ending the policy of detention.  However, it still offers “a massive step in the right direction.”

In the meantime, for those thousands of people trapped in detention and people living in community with fear of detention, change can’t come fast enough.

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.

bigben

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.

Big-Ben-at-Parliament_10Sep15

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.”
HoC leaflet_pg 1
 
 
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?
HoC leaflet_pg 2
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.