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Immigration Detention of Victims of Torture and Other Vulnerable People (Safeguards)

Volume 633: debated on Wednesday 20 December 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about immigration detention safeguards for victims of torture and other vulnerable people, including those that have suffered from severe physical, psychological or sexual violence; and for connected purposes.

The treatment of victims of torture and other vulnerable people in our country’s immigration detention system is unacceptable. Long-standing Home Office policy has been that vulnerable people, including those with “independent evidence of torture”, should not be detained other than in exceptional circumstances, but in practice many are. We know from extensive medical evidence that immigration detention can seriously harm the mental health of detainees, particularly those who have previously suffered ill treatment.

The conditions of immigration detention can be appalling.  Six court cases in recent years have reported inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees. In 2017 alone, 11 people died in custody. Detainees are dying at a faster rate in immigration detention than we have seen before. When the then Home Secretary, now Prime Minister, commissioned the former prisons and probation ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, to conduct a review of the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention last year, his damning report found that safeguards for vulnerable people were inadequate, and that detention was used too often and for too long.

The Government’s response to Stephen Shaw’s recommendations has made a bad situation even worse. The Home Office’s flagship adults at risk policy, launched in September 2016, was intended to help to reduce the number of vulnerable people detained, and to cut the duration of detention, but according to the charity Medical Justice, the policy

“fundamentally weakens protections for vulnerable detainees leading to more rather than fewer being detained, for longer.”

This analysis was borne out in October 2017 by the High Court’s ruling in a case brought against the Home Office by Medical Justice and seven detainees. The Court found that the adults at risk policy unlawfully imprisoned hundreds of victims of torture as a result of the Home Office’s deeply regrettable decision to narrow the definition of torture so that it refers only to violence carried out by state actors and so excludes vulnerable survivors of non-state abuse. Given that the High Court ruled that the Home Office must review and reissue the adults at risk policy, this Bill provides a timely opportunity to ensure that we properly protect victims of torture and other vulnerable people.

My Bill would require all future policy to be inclusive, preventive and effective—inclusive by ensuring that the definition of torture used is broad enough to cover all those who are most likely to suffer from harm in detention, including all those who have suffered severe ill treatment at the hands of both state and non-state actors; preventive by protecting victims of torture and vulnerable people before harm occurs; and effective by ensuring that we actually see the release of those unfit for detention, and that victims of torture and other vulnerable people are not detained for immigration purposes except in very exceptional circumstances.

I thank Freedom from Torture for all its advice and assistance with the Bill. At one of their events that I attended in September, I met Jonathan, a torture victim working with the campaign group Survivors Speak OUT. Jonathan provided harrowing testimony of the torture inflicted on him in his country of origin, and spoke of his experiences in fleeing to the UK, seeking asylum, and having medical evidence of his ill treatment initially disbelieved by the Home Office. While working on issues relating to human rights and the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, I have met other survivors of torture who suffered a similar fate when they arrived in the UK.

The Home Office’s decision to narrow the definition of torture in its adults at risk policy is a prime example of the flaws of the system.  That decision gave rise to a perverse situation whereby victims of sexual and physical abuse, trafficking, sexual exploitation and homophobic attacks were excluded from being recognised as torture victims by this Government, because the crimes perpetrated against them were carried out by non-state agents. The judge presiding in the High Court case ruled that the narrowing of the definition of torture lacked a “rational or evidence base”, and that the exclusion of

“certain individuals whose experiences of the infliction of severe pain and suffering may indeed make them particularly vulnerable to harm in detention.”

Torture is torture, whether carried out by a state or non-state actor.

In its initial 10 weeks of implementation, the adults at risk policy was applied incorrectly in almost 60% of 340 cases. One of the seven detainees who challenged the Home Office’s policy in the courts was Mr P. O. He was beaten, knifed and flogged in homophobic attacks in his country of origin. Fleeing to the UK, he was unlawfully detained, and his mental health deteriorated while he was imprisoned. He said that while he welcomed the High Court’s decision,

“it is still upsetting that the Home Office, who should protect people like me, rejected me and put me in detention which reminded me of the ordeal I suffered in my country of origin.”

It was not just the narrowing of the definition of torture that put Mr P. O. and others like him in such a terrible position. Medical Justice has said:

“For those detainees excluded by the narrower definition of torture, the policy required specific evidence that detention is likely to cause them harm—described as an ‘additional hurdle’ in the judgment. Not only does the policy lack effective mechanisms for obtaining such evidence, it also weakened already ineffective safeguards, encourages a ‘wait and see’ approach where vulnerable people were detained and allowed to deteriorate until avoidable harm has occurred and can be documented. As such, the policy effectively sanctioned harm to vulnerable detainees.”

Sadly, this situation could have been avoided if the Home Office had listened to and acted on concerns when the policy was written. Freedom from Torture was clear that the policy’s implementation

“could…weaken…standards protecting vulnerable people.”

It was correct, but its views, like those of many other organisations, such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, were ignored.

Parliament was marginalised, too. Medical Justice noted:

“The policy was laid before parliament the day before summer recess and came into effect one week after recess with little opportunity for meaningful debate. Parliamentarians’ attention was not drawn to the intention to narrow the definition of torture”.

I question the Government’s commitment to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty if Members are not given adequate time to debate issues, such as the adults at risk policy, that are fundamental to our human rights and our common humanity.

The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to people fleeing violence and persecution. We have both moral and legal obligations to victims of torture and other vulnerable people who seek asylum. The UK must set an example as a country that respects and upholds human rights commitments. The torment faced by many individuals in the Government’s immigration detention system runs counter to this country’s proudest traditions.

It is the day before Parliament rises for the Christmas recess. It is the season of good will, and there can be no group more in need of our consideration, care and compassion than victims of torture and other vulnerable people who have come to this country seeking refuge. In the spirit of good will, I call on the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in addressing this issue. As Home Secretary she ordered the Shaw review, and the Home Office’s woefully poor response to his report happened on her Government’s watch. Now, as Prime Minister, she has the power to right this wrong. For all those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Joan Ryan, Tom Brake, Paul Blomfield, Dr Lisa Cameron, Yvette Cooper, Caroline Lucas, Siobhain McDonagh, Dr Matthew Offord, Jim Shannon, Gareth Thomas, Tom Tugendhat and Catherine West present the Bill.

Joan Ryan accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November 2018, and to be printed (Bill 146).