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The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, we last debated the immigration detention centre rules, and in particular the check-list, in November 1999, during the final stages of the Immigration and Asylum Bill. On Report, several of us argued for full written reasons for detention. In his response, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said:

I registered concern on Third Reading that, despite that assurance, the new form, now known as IS91R, supplied in the Immigration Service publication, New Detention: New Forms and New Procedures, did not even allow space for a specific reference to the special needs of the individual.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, gave a further assurance in his reply that he accepted the points made. He said that the instructions

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would be reviewed and he hoped that the form would be amended. I acknowledge that, as a result of our amendments, the Home Office has attempted to improve the rules, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said, but the advice of those officially consulted on the form has thus far been ignored. It is hard to believe that nothing has happened since the passing of the Act and the consultation, which closed on 21st January last year.

The form is the only document that is made available to the detainee at the moment of his or her detention. It is crucial to that person's future that the form contains the correct information, yet, as it is only a check-list, it does not even give the real reasons, let alone the circumstances of the individual. Research shows that even immigration officers find it difficult to take the form seriously and have tried to adapt it by including relevant information themselves. Combined with the initial fears and language problems usually encountered in first interviews, that often means that the true circumstances of a person's asylum and even their physical condition may be concealed. If asylum seekers are denied that critical opportunity on arrival, no wonder so many of them and their representatives have struggled to demonstrate their case in the months that follow. They may also be conditioned by officials in the country of their persecution to accept forms at face value without questioning what they contain.

In many, perhaps most, cases, asylum seekers do not understand the reasons for their detention. Evidence suggests that, perhaps because of the form, those reasons are not explained to them. In other words, form IS91R is not just inadequate, it prevents understanding and circumvents any meaningful exchange about the genuine needs of the detainee. I shall discount any argument that the Home Office is deliberately creating a Kafkaesque regime to deter asylum seekers, or even that it is pleading, as it has, stretched resources leading to difficulties in producing a form. There is no doubt that even at this late stage it can be improved within the operating standards if the Home Office takes proper account of the evidence from the relevant organisations. I fully support what others have said about the need for proper communications, especially on health issues. Those arguments have been clearly expressed by specialist agencies such as the Medical Foundation.

The rules still do not set out the rights of detainees to have oral interpretation in their dealings with detention centre staff. Nor do they allow for medical consultations where clear communication is essential for the doctor to understand the problem and for the patient or detainee to understand and accept the treatment prescribed. Will the Minister confirm that there will be specific provision in the operating standards for the appropriate training of medical personnel and other staff who can address the relevant health issues in every individual case?

I understand from a new survey of asylum seekers by the Medical Foundation that evidence of torture is not always picked up by medical examinations and that, even when such evidence is found, asylum seekers

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continue to be held in detention after several months. As we have heard, many are detained in prison and are therefore not subject to the rules, which means that they suffer more deprivation than their rather less unfortunate colleagues.

I remind the Minister that the detention of asylum seekers for long periods, whether in prison or detention centres, is unacceptable to a large number of people in this country. It is regularly and specifically denounced by Ministers, including in the Government's White Paper. In his Written Answer to me on 8th March (WA 35) the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, gave no assurance that detention would not last longer than 12 months. In fact, he implied that it could continue for much longer. When, a few days ago, I looked at col. 216W of Commons Hansard of 21st March, I learned that the longest period in detention is now more than 600 days. As to the average length of detention, the Minister could provide no information.

For a Labour Government who espouse ethical standards, that reply is astonishing and appears to contravene all international conventions, let alone the advice of successive inspectors of prisons. Therefore, I hope that today the Minister can give us assurances on those points.

12.15 a.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I shall be brief. I rise in support of the Prayer moved by my noble friend Lord Avebury which seeks to annul the Detention Centre Rules laid before the House on 6th February. My reason for speaking in this debate is that I have serious concerns regarding the interpretation of some of the rules and the difficulties that a number of organisations have had in their consultation with the Home Office.

First, I want to say clearly that, although we remain fundamentally opposed to the detention of asylum seekers, we accept that detention may be necessary in exceptional circumstances if the legal process of claiming asylum has been fully exhausted, including appeals as well as judicial review, and if there is prima facie evidence that an asylum seeker may abscond. In such cases, obviously detention should be used only for short periods of time when removal is fairly imminent.

The UNHCR has consistently condemned what it calls the UK's "routine use of detention". It believes that the detention of asylum seekers is inherently undesirable. Detention for reasons other than those outlined in the detention guidelines, such as part of a policy to deter future asylum seekers, is, according to the UNHCR,

    "contrary to the norms of refugee law".

Detention is obviously very expensive. The Government estimate that a policy of detaining all asylum seekers on arrival, ignoring the legal and moral arguments as to whether that is possible, could amount to 2 billion in start-up costs, with annual running costs of more than 1 billion.

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However, the detention of people who have fled persecution and have committed no crime also carries a high mental welfare cost for detainees. A number of studies have been carried out, particularly projects in relation to the mental health implications of the detention of asylum seekers. It has been found that the most stressful aspect of detention is the information vacuum. I believe that that is where some of the rules that have been set out could be more helpful.

We should bear in mind that the longest period of detention--that of an asylum seeker who is currently detained under Immigration Act powers and has been detained since his arrival in the United Kingdom on 30th July 1999--is more than 600 days.

A matter of concern to me was a press release which I picked up this morning, issued by the Home Office. For a moment, I believed that it answered the prayers of my noble friend Lord Avebury. Unfortunately that was not so. First, the press release talked about effect returns of 30,000 failed asylum seekers. Then it talked about voluntary returns at the end of the asylum process. Then it talked of creating 1,800 new detention spaces to facilitate removals.

There are some good aspects of the press release and we welcome them, especially the mention of an anti-trafficking unit to crack down on criminals involved in the illegal smuggling and trafficking of people. We certainly welcome the process of faster decisions, provided they do not breach the rules of natural justice. More importantly, we welcome the development of strategies to help successful applicants to integrate into our society. But where, I ask, are the reforms of the detention rules?

The impression that we get is that asylum will be a hot issue in the coming general election. The emphasis on detaining and deporting asylum seekers, rather than on examining some of our practices, could damage our civilised values. I draw the Minister's attention to some anomalies and the lack of consultation that there has been on some of the changes. I draw attention in particular to the Government's White Paper, which states:

    "The Government has welcomed the views of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons and others and, as resources become available, is committed to pursuing a strategy of detaining in dedicated detention and holding centres, not prisons".

We should examine the situation in Haslar Prison, which we debated recently. Although Haslar holds only immigration detainees, it continues to be designated as a prison and still runs under prison rules. A similar situation applies elsewhere. Such institutions are being used as prisons and operate under prison rules. In November, the Government announced their intention of increasing by 500 the number of those detained in prison under the Immigration Act; now we know that the relevant figure is more than 1,800.

When will the Government redesignate Haslar Prison as a detention centre? When will they designate the detention facility at Lindholme as a detention centre? How will they ensure that all those who are detained under the Immigration Act will be treated in accordance with the standards that are set out in the rules?

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I do not wish to cause the Minister embarrassment, but I was grateful to him for being good enough to admit to a couple of errors when we last debated the situation in Haslar. First, I welcome his assurance that immigration detainees in prisons will no longer be subject to drug testing. I hope that that it so; the practice would break all rules governing the treatment of immigration detainees were it to continue. A second point on which the Minister was at fault, but through no fault of his own--perhaps he had misread his information or the brief with which he was supplied--involved the position of the members of the boards of visitors. He said that one of those members had been appointed to another board, but in fact he was appointed to a probation committee. That does not matter very much, and I thank the Minister for giving us the information and for correcting it at the first available opportunity.

I want to raise another matter with the Minister. It involves the forms and guidance notes, which have already been discussed by noble Lords. We are concerned about the contents of the special needs section of form IS91 and about the guidance that is given. Statement 1.3 says:

    "Careful consideration should be given before using this categorisation as the resources used in monitoring such detainees are expensive".

That appears to be irresponsible in respect of some of the categories that are listed as special needs, notably suicide risk, those with medical problems, the disabled, minors, pregnant women and those refusing food and fluids. There has been an inordinate delay following the consultation period and we should like to know when the Home Office intends to amend the forms and guidance notes. At the very least, it should write to those organisations that raised objections and explain why the documentation has not been changed.

Noble Lords have already discussed other rules, so I shall not delay the House further. I hope that the Minister will take into account representations that have been made by various bodies and that the Government will deal with them. I hope that he will place a copy of his reply in the Library so that we can refer to the action that has been taken.

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