Previous SectionIndexHome Page

24 Jan 2006 : Column 403WH—continued

Asylum and Detention (Government Policy)

1 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): On the previous debate, as an east London MP, I want to say that I support the case for the redevelopment of Bart's.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I know how tempting that may be, and obviously there is a lot of interest in the matter, but hon. Members must wait for another debate.

Harry Cohen : Miss Begg, will you thank Mr. Speaker for choosing me to introduce this debate on asylum and detention—with the emphasis on detention? The number of people claiming asylum in the UK and in other industrialised countries is declining. In the UK, the numbers have dropped dramatically—by as much as 61 per cent. over the last two years, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In spite of that, the number of those who have claimed asylum at some stage and who are detained solely under the powers of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 has increased. Given that the number of places to detain such people has tripled under this Government, it is crucial that the House look closely at what is happening and consider seriously what the implications of such a policy may be.

I have asked for this debate because I believe that the detention of people who have sought asylum in the UK remains a hidden plight. The Minister will, I am sure, be aware of the fact that Amnesty International looked at the very issue earlier this year. The organisation reached some incredibly disturbing conclusions, which I believe warrant closer inspection and consideration.

The human cost of detention is far too high. It inflicts untold misery on the individuals concerned and their families. Those held in detention include some of the most vulnerable people who in most societies, including ours, are identified as needing the most support and protection. I am talking about families with young children, torture survivors, pregnant women, the elderly and those with serious medical conditions.

People are detained miles away from their family and friends. They are often held in grim, prison-like establishments. Many are not clear about the circumstances of their detention. They sometimes do not understand why they are being held. Those interviewed by Amnesty International were not told how long they would be detained. There is no maximum time limit for detention, and no automatic judicial scrutiny as to the lawfulness and the necessity of the detention. If the onus were placed on the UK authorities to justify such use of detention, I   would not like to hazard a guess as to how many decisions to detain would be questioned and perhaps overturned.

Those interviewed by Amnesty International had all fully complied with reporting restrictions at the time that they were taken into detention. The Minister may argue that those people were detained because there may have been a credible risk of their absconding. Maybe so, but with no meaningful assessment of that risk, how can he be so sure?

There are people languishing in detention, sometimes for as long as two years. That has negative repercussions for individuals, and particularly for their mental health.
24 Jan 2006 : Column 404WH
Detainees say that they were frustrated by the lack of    information and by feelings of abandonment and   loneliness. Some had self-harmed and attempted suicide. Some complained of the verbal and racial abuse that they suffered. All that points to untold misery, and this is the plight of people who have committed no crime.

The Government have often claimed that detention is pivotal to their strategy to remove asylum seekers whose claims have been dismissed. They have also claimed that detention would be used only as a last resort. However, Amnesty International found that many people were detained at different points of the asylum process. I   confirm from my casework that that can be at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of such a case, when the prospect of effecting their forcible removal within a reasonable time is slim. This is not really a last resort, then.

We have no idea how many people are held in detention. Amnesty International believes that twice as many people are detained as are removed each year. It is estimated that 25,000 people were held in detention in 2004. It is unacceptable that we do not know for sure how many people are detained. We do not know how long they are detained for and we have no profile of those held in detention. That gap in general knowledge must be filled.

In April last year, the Government introduced new funding arrangements for legal work on asylum and immigration cases in England and Wales, with the aim of cutting the overall public funding for such work. I realise that that policy area is not necessarily within the Minister's remit, but he must be aware of the effect that it is having on his area of responsibility. The cuts in legal aid have resulted in the withdrawal of established solicitors from that vital area of work, which has created a gap in expertise that is felt most by those held in detention who are at the end of the asylum process. What hope is there for them if they do not get adequate legal representation?

I have referred extensively to Amnesty International, but last July there was a briefing from Save the Children to Members of the House, which made some important points about children held in the detention system. Save the Children said that it was worried about


It also said that the processes for taking the welfare of children into account

Save the Children raised concerns about the effectiveness of existing review procedures for ensuring that the detention of children is not prolonged. It pointed out that it is Government policy for the immigration service to give written reasons for detention in all cases, at the time of detention and at intervals thereafter, but the briefing says:

24 Jan 2006 : Column 405WH

The briefing goes on to talk about ministerial authorisation in relation to children who are detained for more than 28 days. Ministers are supposed to authorise such cases every 28 days and every week thereafter. Save the Children says:

Save the Children goes on to say that, in 2002, Her Majesty's inspector of prisons recommended that there should be an independent assessment of the welfare, developmental and educational needs of each detained child. Save the Children says that no system for that is in place. I presume that it is still not in place, even now. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that.

Save the Children talks about prolonged detention and    the fact that that can happen through an incremental process. It quotes the European Commissioner for Human Rights:

Finally, it offers another quote from the European Commissioner for Human Rights:

Recently, there was a press conference to launch a document called "A 'Bleak House' for Our Times", which was produced by Legal Action for Women. The document looks into what is happening at the Yarl's Wood centre, and I want to mention some points that were made at that press conference. Concern was expressed on various issues, including the fact that those who are suicidal are placed on a suicide watch that involves their being woken at timed intervals with flash lights, which is likely to remind victims of previous traumas and to cause severe sleep deprivation.

Concern was also expressed at the fact that there is no mechanism to prevent victims of torture from being detained; that the outsourcing of medical care services results in detainees having restricted access to health professionals; that the detention centre manager is obtrusive and often refuses detainees medical attention, in some cases overruling the decision of the nurses and health professionals; that representation, when it is received, is often poor and undermines cases; and that lawyers' charges are too high for the people held in the centre.

Legal Action for Women also said that there is a distinct lack of information about the fast-track scheme and that those who are detained do not know of it. It added that although there is a women's detention centre at Yarl's Wood, 70 per cent. of the staff are male. It went so far as to call for a full public inquiry on the issue of detention.
24 Jan 2006 : Column 406WH

The right to liberty is one of the most fundamental human rights protected under international law, and it is a serious violation of that right to detain an individual arbitrarily. It should concern us all if, as seems to be the case, there is a real possibility that people are being detained unjustly. For that reason, I urge the Minister to   ensure that each decision to detain is seriously considered. Such a decision should not be made lightly, but should be overseen by a court or a similar independent body with the competence to review each decision regularly. Does he agree that that is the only way for us to ensure that we do not detain people arbitrarily and that we treat people humanely, as is our duty under international law?

Will the Minister consider reinstating the provision made in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 for two automatic bail hearings for all immigration detainees after seven and 35 days in detention, which would thus ensure that they were protected against prolonged and unnecessary detention? Given that detention should only ever be used as a last resort, will he make it his policy that alternative non-custodial measures, such as reporting, will always be considered before resorting to detention? That should be the policy for all asylum applications, including those considered under the so-called fast-track process. Does he agree?

I find it extraordinary that no comprehensive statistics are made available in the course of a year on the number of people who have sought asylum and who are held in detention. Nor, of course, is there any information on how long those people are held. That cannot be right. In 2003, the Home Affairs Committee noted that the lack of comprehensive data on detention made it difficult to judge whether detention was really being used as a last resort, primarily to support removal, as the Government have claimed.

The Committee recommended that the figures be provided quarterly, but they are still not available. When will they be ready? It has been two years since the Committee made its recommendation. Why, after all this time, are the figures still not available? Can the Minister give us a concrete date for when they will be? Vulnerable people are being held in detention, and the cost for them is particularly high. Can he guarantee that no vulnerable person will be held in detention?

Recently, I employed a bright young woman called Anna Boaden. Unbeknown to me, although it must have been in her CV somewhere, she did her dissertation on the detention of asylum seekers. Her conclusion contains a crucial argument:

I do not know whether that is true, but if detention is being used as a tool of deterrence in any single case, that is an unsuitable use of detention and is, potentially,
24 Jan 2006 : Column 407WH
against international law. Let us have the information—the data—so it can be tested. If the Government say that that is not the purpose, let us see whether that is so.

In conclusion, depriving people of their liberty is a serious measure and no decision to detain should be taken lightly. The Government themselves said that they would use detention only as a last resort, which signals the seriousness with which such decisions should be taken.

There appear to be no rigorous checks and balances on how detention is administered. It is crucial that that be addressed by the Government—not only to restore faith in the system, but, more importantly, to ensure that they deliver a fair and efficient asylum system. Although it is not unlawful in some circumstances for the Government to detain people who have sought asylum in the UK, it is unlawful for them to detain individuals arbitrarily. I call on the Government to take all the necessary steps to end arbitrary detention.

I look forward to the Minister's response and ask him to focus particularly on the issues of judicial oversight, automatic bail review, the availability of statistics, the use of non-custodial measures and an end to the detention of vulnerable people.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham) : I should like to begin by thanking you, Miss Begg, for your intervention at the start of the debate. I was worried for a second that I might have to answer questions on St. Bartholomew's private finance initiative, as well as on detention and the immigration service.

On a serious point, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) on securing this debate. He is right to do so, because it is a matter of important public policy and it is right that there is the fullest possible debate about such serious issues. I agree with him at the start by saying that, by definition, the matter involves some very vulnerable people, which is why it is important that we debate these issues openly and are clear about the policy. I also congratulate Amnesty International on raising public awareness of the issues concerned.

These are difficult issues of public policy, and it is important that we foster an informed public debate about them. I say "informed", because it is important that when conducting this debate, people on both sides of the issues stick to the facts and that the language used is temperate and accurately describes the situation. I am not describing this debate, but in other instances, recently, particularly in relation to events in Scotland, the language used has sometimes veered away from that standard, which does not help the conduct of a rational, sensible debate on immigration.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has introduced his debate today and for his remarks. I agree and sympathise with many of his points. I suspect that we may have a disagreement on the level of whether or not detention should be used and the extent to which it should be used. There may be a difference between us on that, but I can assure him that I agree with a number of the principles that he outlined.
24 Jan 2006 : Column 408WH

First, I would want to assure him that a decision is never taken lightly or before a meaningful—I think that was the word he used—assessment. I will explain that in more detail. There should be openness about the statistics, so that people can have clarity about the situation; I would want to agree with him on that point. That people are accommodated in decent conditions, in a humane way—I would agree with him there, too.

I will move on to some of the areas where we may have a difference. The Government's view is that, although regrettable, detention is an integral and important element in maintaining effective immigration control and in tackling abuses of the system. We have made it clear that there is a general assumption in favour of granting temporary admission or release—I want to assure my hon. Friend on that point—but there will be circumstances where detention will be considered.

Such circumstances would be: initially, where a person's identity or the basis of their claim is being established; where there are reasonable grounds for believing that the person will abscond; thirdly, when part of a fast-track asylum procedure, where an individual's application appears to be capable of being decided quickly; or, fourthly, to effect removal. Those are the grounds on which such a decision will be taken, but, as I said to my hon. Friend at the beginning, that would be done only after a serious assessment of the case before the particular immigration officer.

Immigration detention policy and practise in the UK is fully in line with article 5 of the European convention on human rights and associated jurisprudence. Detention is for the shortest possible period and will last no longer than is reasonably necessary in the cases concerned. My hon. Friend raised the point about there being no time limit, but there is the phrase "reasonably necessary". People have to make a judgment, of course. The sort of length of detention to which he referred would be an exceptional circumstance and by no means the average time that people would spend in detention. He is right, and when we come on to the statistics I can say a little more.

Our view is that detention should never be prolonged unduly. The decision on whether detention should be authorised or maintained is made on a case-by-case basis, rightly subject to regular review. No one—I stress—is detained solely because they have made an application for asylum.

I want, too, to give my hon. Friend the assurance that we carefully considered the Amnesty International report, "Seeking asylum is not a crime", and the 21   recommendations made. As he called the debate, I have been through those recommendations again, to satisfy myself that we gave them due consideration and took on board the points made.

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality met representatives of Amnesty to discuss the report last July and he responded formally to the report in September. I hope that that is an assurance that within the Department we have treated the report with the seriousness that it clearly deserves.

As an aside, a tribute to the power and reach of Amnesty International in this country is that I must have signed more letters to MPs about that report than about any other single issue. That is a good thing, which
24 Jan 2006 : Column 409WH
clearly shows that, as I said at the beginning, Amnesty has succeeded in producing a far-reaching public debate. I congratulate it on succeeding in such a positive step.

A number of the recommendations that the report made, we would argue, reflect what we do already or relate to issues on which we have indicated that we share much the same underlying principle. There are other recommendations with which we disagree or simply cannot accept that the matters concerned need to be placed on a statutory footing.

I will give an example. There is the recommendation for a statutory prohibition on the use of Prison Service accommodation to hold certain individuals, which in our view is necessary in individual cases for reasons of security and control. It is not used routinely, but there will be circumstances when it is an appropriate option, perhaps for the protection of the individual concerned. We would not want to rule it out. I will be happy to provide my hon. Friend and other hon. Members with a copy of our full response to the report. I shall write to my hon. Friend with that.

Although detention is not time limited, it is subject to clear and well-understood legal constraints. Domestic and European Court of Human Rights case law provides that it should last for no longer than is reasonably necessary, that it must be used for the purpose authorised and that it must not be prolonged unduly. That is the basis on which detention operates in practice.

As I say, we have no wish to detain people for longer than necessary and we believe that there is every reason to keep detention as short as possible. Detention has to be used efficiently and effectively if it is to support an increased level of removals of failed asylum seekers. We have made it clear on many occasions that we do not consider it appropriate to have a fixed upper limit on the duration of detention; that would go beyond the requirements of article 5 of the European convention on human rights.

A fixed time limit would be arbitrary, thus taking no account of the individual's circumstances. It would serve simply to encourage individuals to frustrate and prolong immigration and asylum processes to reach a point at which they would be released. That would be unacceptable. A time limit might also encourage people to set longer time limits to err on the side of caution; again, that would not be in the interests of the individual concerned. The right thing is to work from the principle that detention should be minimised as much as possible.

All cases are considered carefully on their individual merits, and that will include an assessment of the risk of absconding. However, we do not detain only those individuals who present such a risk; people may be detained as part of a fast-track asylum process in which there may be little or no risk of their absconding. In some cases, individuals may also be detained simply to effect their removal. They may not represent a risk of
24 Jan 2006 : Column 410WH
absconding, but it may be clear that they have no intention of leaving the UK voluntarily. Detention may therefore be necessary to enforce removal.

My hon. Friend went into great detail on the detention of vulnerable people. Naturally, that is an issue of concern. Operational instructions provide clear guidance to immigration service staff about persons normally considered unsuitable for detention; I give my hon. Friend assurances on that. Such persons include victims of torture, pregnant women, those with serious medical conditions, people with mental health problems and elderly people. However, the detention of such individuals cannot be ruled out completely. Officers dealing with such cases must weigh the various factors in favour of and against detention and make a judgment in each case about whether it would be appropriate to authorise it. We have to trust the professionalism of the staff involved at that point. As I said, emotive language can often be used to describe immigration service staff, but we owe them a debt of thanks for the difficult job that they do in enforcing immigration control.

Harry Cohen : I hear what the Minister says, and do not disagree with much of it. However, should there not be better independent oversight? Should such decisions just be left in the hands of immigration staff? They get it   wrong sometimes. Should there not be a better independent oversight arrangement?

Andy Burnham : In the short time left, I shall turn directly to that point. My hon. Friend mentioned the system for authorising the detention of children beyond 28 days. As Ministers, we see such reports regularly and in our view, the system is working well. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has met representatives from Save the Children and will meet them again next month.

We take the issue seriously; it is, of course, of great importance. It is right that the situation should be scrutinised regularly at the highest ministerial level. I assure my hon. Friend that the system is working well and will continue.

There has been concern about the availability of statistics on detention. We have done much to improve the accuracy and scope of such published statistics—for example, data on children in detention is now included in them. However, I completely understand my hon. Friend's point about the need to do more. If we want the public debate that I described at the beginning of my remarks, it is crucial that people have access to the full facts.

In particular, we appreciate the desire to have statistics for the number of people detained over a period, rather than the snapshot figures for the end of each quarter that we have at present. Work is going on at the research and statistics sections of the Home Office at the moment so that we can produce a measure that is meaningful and that will give my hon. Friend what he wants.
24 Jan 2006 : Column 409WH

24 Jan 2006 : Column 411WH

Next Section IndexHome Page