[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the immigration detention of survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.
As always, Sir Gary, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue in Parliament today. Trafficking and modern-day slavery have been described by our current Prime Minister as
“the great human rights issue of our time”.
The Government have rightly committed to safeguarding and supporting those who are exploited in this way, yet new research published today by the charity Women for Refugee Women shows that Chinese women who have been trafficked to the UK are routinely being locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, often for months on end. Instead of offering help and support, the Home Office is inflicting yet more distress and trauma on these women by subjecting them to indefinite immigration detention. I have stood in this Chamber and the main Chamber so many times to speak about this; sometimes it feels as if we are constantly repeating ourselves when we ask for the issue of vulnerable women in detention to be properly managed.
Women for Refugee Women’s research makes for very worrying reading. Since the summer of last year, it has received an increasing number of phone calls from Chinese women detained in Yarl’s Wood. The Home Office’s own figures show that since 2016, the number of Chinese women locked up in immigration detention has almost doubled. Women for Refugee Women has spoken to 40 women from China in total, and 29 of them have said that they have experienced some form of trafficking—often sexual or labour exploitation. For its research, Women for Refugee Women looked at the legal files of 14 of these women to see if it could identify patterns in their treatment by the Home Office. It found that the Home Office was deliberately refusing to protect these women and was knowingly inflicting further harm and trauma on them.
In four of the cases reviewed, women were detained directly from massage parlours or brothels—the very situations where they were being directly exploited and where there was a clear objective indicator that they were victims of trafficking. This is not to be questioned. These women were being taken directly from brothels. In spite of that, they were not given any help or support; instead, they were arrested and sent straight to Yarl’s Wood.
In eight of the cases, moreover, when women disclosed what had happened to them, they were referred to the national referral mechanism and the Home Office said that it did not believe them. What is more, in six cases, its reasons for refusing to recognise them as survivors of trafficking were in direct contravention of its own guidance on assessing credibility. It said that it did not believe them because they had not disclosed what had happened to them at the point when they were arrested—even though its own guidance explicitly says that delayed disclosure may be a result of the trauma and exploitation that they have been subjected to.
In some cases, the Home Office made obviously absurd assertions to justify its negative decisions. In the case of a woman who was encountered during a raid on a brothel, the Home Office said that it was reasonable to expect her to disclose her exploitation at that point, even though she was still in the situation of exploitation, and even though she thought that she was being arrested by the police.
Just take a moment to think about someone who is being exploited and is working in a brothel against their will, being forced to have sex with however many men it may have been that day. If that institution was raided by a group of uniformed officers, even I—a citizen of this country—would not be able to identify that they were the goodies, not the baddies I had been told about, who would arrest me if they found out what I was doing and who I had been groomed to be wary of. Yet we expect those women at that exact moment to say, “Yes, I am being prostituted.” It seems so unlikely and so inhumane.
Even when the Home Office recognised some of the women as survivors of trafficking, it still did not provide them with help or support. In one particularly shocking case, a woman who had received a positive reasonable grounds decision was not released from Yarl’s Wood to the safe house; she was actually sent back to the address where she had been sexually exploited before she was detained. I have worked in human trafficking services, and I understand what the pathway is meant to be once somebody goes through the national referral mechanism: safe houses, benefits and support should be available. It is a good system from the Government; it is well designed and kind, although it is not perfect. I have absolutely no idea why that pathway is not clear in situations where women are detained.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. She has done well to secure the debate and to highlight the excellent work of Women for Refugee Women. Does she agree that behind many of the problems that she describes is the way in which two separate responsibilities—for modern slavery and for immigration enforcement—sit uncomfortably within the Home Office? I declare an interest as a trustee of Focus on Labour Exploitation, a charity that works in this area; our research has shown that the conflict between those two responsibilities is repeatedly hampering attempts to protect victims. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way to resolve the problem satisfactorily is to have truly independent decision making?
I could not agree more; it is clearly a problem, and not just in trafficking services. Sometimes I have to speak to the immigration wing of the Home Office and explain issues of domestic violence or sexual violence. I always sit back and think, “Hang on a minute—you’re the Department that is in charge of dealing with domestic violence and sexual violence. Why has it taken my explanation for your immigration officers to understand the nuances of the case?” I do not doubt that the Home Office is a caring and kind institution when it comes to tackling issues of trafficking, domestic abuse and sexual violence; I believe truly that its heart is in the right place, but while targets for immigration removal are maintained as high-level political targets, we will see vulnerabilities, and the care side of the Home Office will be completely swept aside. I absolutely agree that there needs to be a severing and an independence.
My hon. Friend is right to say that she has raised the matter many times; I have heard her do so in various debates. It strikes me that very often these women are not getting any legal aid or legal assistance. Organisations that could provide such support, such as CRASAC—Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, which I am sure my hon. Friend has heard of—are totally underfunded. Once again, as they do in every mode of life in this country, women seem to be paying a price somewhere down the line, whether it is in dealing with the national deficit or in other issues—benefits, universal credit, the lot. Although women have equal rights in this country, it all paints a pretty grim picture of the way in which they are actually treated.
I completely agree. Paradoxically, the support services that the Home Office funds specifically for human trafficking are good and relatively well funded for those who have already gone through the national referral mechanism. The problem is the idea that a trafficked woman, a trafficked child or a trafficked anyone understands what the national referral mechanism is. There is a high bar to accessing services, and the community-based support for people to enter the system has been completely and utterly degraded by years and years of austerity.
Birmingham, where I live, is certainly heavily reliant on religious organisations for the low-level support of trafficking victims who have not yet got to the national referral mechanism stage. That support is incredibly patchy and there is no outreach element to it; it is only provided if people manage to find those services. So, good advice and guidance on the streets, and a change in the culture of how we help these people, are vital.
I will go back to the specific cases of the Chinese women covered in this report. The distress caused to these women by their treatment at the hands of the Home Office is immense. One woman who was forced into prostitution in the UK described her arrest and detention in the following way:
“One day men in uniforms came to the house. They dragged me out and took me to the police station. Later, I was put in a van. It drove for a long time through the night and ended up at Yarl’s Wood. I was taken from one hell to another.”
Shalini Patel, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis Solicitors who has taken on many of these cases, has said:
“There is sheer disregard for the safety of these women who have already been subjected to such horrendous sexual abuse and exploitation. These women are by no means fit for detention, but despite this they are detained for months at a time with no adequate support. It is only when legal representatives step in that they are eventually released from detention. I hate to think what is happening to those women who are not able to access legal advice”,
which is an issue that has quite rightly been raised here today.
The Home Office will say that this report looks at only 14 cases, which is an understandable retort. However, although this report is the first piece of research to examine the treatment of Chinese women who have been trafficked into the UK, it is just the latest report to document how the Home Office is refusing to help and support survivors of trafficking. Research by Detention Action published in 2017 and a report published by the Jesuit Refugee Service in 2018 both showed how men and women who had been trafficked into the UK were routinely being locked up in detention.
Also, new Home Office data, which was obtained by the After Exploitation project and released today, shows that in 2018 alone 507 potential victims of trafficking were detained under immigration powers in the UK. In fact, this figure includes only those who have received positive reasonable grounds decisions and whom the Home Office recognises as possible survivors of trafficking, so it really is just the tip of the iceberg.
In all the cases that Women for Refugee Women looked at, the women were detained for over a month and four of them were detained for more than six months. These long periods of detention caused a drastic deterioration in their mental health; half the women in the sample had suicidal thoughts and six of them were self-harming in detention. And, incredibly, 92% of asylum-seeking women from China who are locked up in Yarl’s Wood are not subsequently removed from the UK but are released back into the community, which prompts the question: what was the point of putting them through that horror? As well as being extremely damaging, even traumatising, the detention of these women serves no purpose.
As always, my hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech. Does she agree about one of the other disconnects that exists in the system? She has read out details of some traumatic cases of the long-term detention of individuals who need help, yet perversely some of us in this place have been arguing that the Government should extend the “move-on period” for those who have been given a determination past the 45-day mark, because 45 days is not long enough. The Government say it is sufficient time, even as they lock people up for months and months at a time in Yarl’s Wood. It just does not make sense to me.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is ridiculous that the “reflection period”, as I believe it is called, is 45 days and is considered to be the reasonable amount of time that somebody who has suffered terrible trauma and horrendous abuse requires. Given my experience of working in one of the services that helps these victims, I know that often it is possible to make claims for longer periods, based on certain circumstances. It is like any local resident who says, “Gosh! If I paid my council tax with the same irregularity as the bins are collected, I would be put in prison!” It is one of those things where it seems that there is one rule for the state and one rule for others.
It is also important to remember that, in developing policies on helping survivors of trafficking, the Home Office has repeatedly promised that it will reduce the use of detention for people who are vulnerable. Following Stephen Shaw’s review of detention in 2016, the Home Office introduced the adults at risk policy, which it said would result in fewer vulnerable people going into detention. The AAR policy explicitly says that survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence should not normally be detained, yet the research published by Women for Refugee Women today shows that the Home Office is deliberately going against this policy.
In fact, the report by Women for Refugee Women adds to the wealth of evidence showing that, despite the Home Office’s repeated promises to reform its use of immigration detention, very little has changed since 2016. The number of people in immigration detention has fallen, of course, but Stephen Shaw’s follow-up review of detention, which was published a year ago, found that
“it is not clear that AAR has yet made a significant difference to those numbers”—
That is, to the numbers of vulnerable people in detention. And just a few months ago, the Home Affairs Committee found that the AAR policy
“is clearly not protecting the vulnerable people that it was introduced to protect.”
What is the Home Office doing about this constant hamster-wheel of our coming here and asking that trafficking victims and victims of gender-based violence in detention be looked at and properly managed? It seems like many years now, but in 2015, when I became an MP, I went with Women for Refugee Women to Yarl’s Wood, to meet some of the women there. While I was there, because I was fresh out of working for an anti-human trafficking service, I was able to identify within seconds that the first person who I sat down to talk to—a woman—was a victim of human trafficking.
As I say, when I was sitting in that room in front of that woman, it took me seconds to identify what had gone wrong in her life, so I cannot understand why it has already taken four more years for the Home Office to consider putting in place proper safeguards. At the very least, there should be a proper specialist who risk-assesses everybody who comes through the doors at Yarl’s Wood on the day that they arrive; I will volunteer my time and I will gladly go and sit there for a few weeks.
I have three key demands of the Minister. First, the Home Office needs to stop detaining survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence immediately. It is very simple for the Home Office to do this; in fact, it is simply a matter of putting its own policy into practice.
Secondly, there needs to be a 28-day time limit on all immigration detention. The harm and distress caused by indefinite detention is immeasurable, and the research by Women for Refugee Women shows how the Home Office is detaining vulnerable people for very long periods of time. We already have much a shorter time limit of 72 hours for the detention of families with children or women who are pregnant, so I do not see any practical reason why a 28-day limit for everyone else cannot be introduced.
Finally, the Home Office needs to recognise that immigration detention is harmful, costly and completely purposeless; quite simply, nothing justifies its continuing use. Immigration cases can be resolved much more humanely and effectively in the community. If I was the Minister, I would shut down Yarl’s Wood and end immigration detention.
Again, there is this idea of one Government Department with two heads. I sit opposite Ministers from the Ministry of Justice who talk about women’s justice centres and how everybody knows that what is needed is proper community voluntary-sector provision, rather than sending women to prison, especially when so many women in prison have been victims of sexual and domestic violence, and often of human trafficking as well.
The Government line on this is completely different to reality, as they recognise that channelling the money away from prisons and into women’s centres in the community is the right thing to do, yet here we have this blot on the landscape, which is immigration detention, that does exactly the same thing as before and costs the state far more than specialist voluntary sector providers, who would do the same work better and more humanely.
I do not understand why we have to keep on having a debate on this issue. I hope that this is the last time that we all participate in a debate on this issue, but I imagine that, if she is still in her current post, I will see the Minister who is here today—the Minister for Immigration —the same time next year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I start by declaring an interest, which appears in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) is also an officer. I congratulate her on having secured this debate.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I started to write a few comments for this debate and then abandoned them, because what I really wanted to say is that I just do not believe, as my hon. Friend said, that the Minister, anybody in the Government or indeed anybody who works in the Home Office wants to deliberately harm these people. But as I sat writing, I got to the point that everyone knows this is happening, so how does it carry on? Why does nobody stop it? Over the last few months in particular, I have found myself in quite a number of debates thinking, “If we can’t stop it, where do the public go?” I know the Minister cares about this, which is why I wanted to start with it, but she is a Minister of the Crown, and she, along with others, is responsible for the policy and its implementation. When it goes wrong, as it clearly has in some respects, she will be appalled at the individual circumstances, but this is a systemic failure. It is a failure of public policy.
All of us here are frustrated, even more than we are angry, about why we cannot do something about this. I will make a couple of other points, but I wanted to stand up alongside my hon. Friend and others and to say to the Minister that she should use this debate as a further incentive—a further motivation—to say, “This is not made up. This is not according to the guidance that we have set. This is not what is supposed to happen, so why is it still happening?” The Minister has the authority to bring people together and demand that, if a contract is not being properly implemented, those responsible are held to account and something is done about it. The cry from everyone will be, “If the people who work in immigration are not following the guidelines, do something about it.”
Although the reports my hon. Friend referred to are outstanding, I am sick of reading them. I think we have all read the report that Women for Refugee Women has published today. It is a disgrace; there is no other word for it. It should be on the front page of every newspaper. In our country, in 2019, victims of modern slavery are imprisoned. That is not the sort of country we are. That is not the sort of country the Minister represents, or that any of us represents. But that is what is happening.
For goodness’ sake, can the system not wake up? Can it not regenerate itself and have a bit of passion and urgency in it? This is not a bureaucratic exercise; this is men, women and children detained, not for a crime, but because they are victims. Which other victims would we lock up? It beggars belief. As I say, I do not feel angry about it—actually, I do a bit—but I do find it unbelievable. Sir Gary, you will have been in the position, as we all have, of having somebody come to one of your surgeries and raising an issue where you just sit there—I know I am getting older—and have that “I can’t believe it” moment. You just cannot believe it. I say to the Minister that this is one of those moments.
Only today, a Sky News report—published alongside the Women for Refugee Women report about Chinese women—stated that 507 potential victims of modern slavery were locked up. The Government’s response did not dispute that figure; it was just the bureaucratic response of, “Well, they are only there for a little while, and most of them are released, so it is fine.” That is not good enough. There are 507 people locked up. Is that not unbelievable? Is it not incredible? In 2019, 507 potential victims of modern slavery are locked up. That is not good enough. It is not right, and it is not the sort of country that any of us wants to live in.
Going back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, the heart of this is that these are victims of crime, not immigration offenders. Until the system gets hold of that fact, recognises it and runs its policy accordingly, we are going to lock innocent people up. We are going to lock innocent families up. We are going to put children behind bars. People say that is emotive, but that is the truth of it. These people cannot come and go; if they cannot come and go, and there are fences with people guarding them, what is that called? We get into propaganda if we are not careful. These are prisons, in which people are locked up.
I say again to the Minister that this has to be sorted out. I have been saying so for years, as have other people; some have been campaigning on this issue for years. Why is it that when somebody is brutalised, terrorised, forced into work or forced into sex—when a child is working umpteen hours, terrified that their family is going to be beaten up or killed if they co-operate with the police, and frightened of all the different threats they face—the first thing we do when we get most of them is lock them up? It is partly because we say that we do not believe them or that they are not co-operating with the police. Can I come clean here? If my family were threatened with being mercilessly killed, I am not sure the first thing I would do when arrested by a police officer in a country that I was not used to, that I did not know and that had a language I did not properly understand would be to say, “Quite right, officer. Take me down to the station. Let me help you out as best I can to bring before the courts the people who have been threatening me and who told me that if I co-operate they are going to kill my family.” That is not the real world. What do we do? We lock them up. I am not going to say much more, because in a sense, that encapsulates it.
I have bundles of things in my office—stacks of reports, of statistics, of this and that—but my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has made the case that this is not good enough, and I am making that case as well. What are we going to do? I know the Minister does not want this to happen, but she is a Minister of the Crown; she is the person responsible. She has the opportunity, the chance and the power to do something about this. If she does not have the power in a democratic society, who does? She is part of Her Majesty’s Government—an elected Member of Parliament who is the Government official with responsibility for this issue, and she can do it.
Why are trafficking victims held? Is it public policy? If not, why does it happen? How long are these people held for? How many are there? Sometimes, we are not even totally sure of the data. How many children are among them. Is it none, or some? Are they detained only if they are with their family? What guidance is there, and how do the Minister or the Government check the guidance is followed? In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the Home Secretary himself said he was not totally sure that the guidance was put in place and properly acted on. As my hon. Friend said, Mr Justice Julian Knowles said in his judgment that the Government’s 45-day policy for someone found to have conclusive grounds was illegal and would have to be changed. Can the Minister clarify what the Government’s response has been? My understanding is that they have said they will no longer implement the 45-day policy for those found to have conclusive grounds. Will the Minister confirm that? Although it is a slight aside to the debate, that issue is important.
I will finish with this point. These women, these men, these children—these victims—have no voice. We are their voice; they are the voiceless. We are speaking up for them. We are crying out and shouting out for them. Is anyone listening and is anyone going to act on what is being said?
I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this debate and speaking so passionately and well on an issue that I know is a lifelong passion of hers. I am grateful for her continued pressure on this issue. I am also grateful to Women for Refugee Women for putting together a powerful report. The Minister would do well to read it and pay close attention to what is proposed in order to resolve the situation. As the new chair of the new all-party parliamentary group on immigration detention, which was set up just recently, I care deeply that this issue is resolved and that we are not holding people in immigration detention when they should not be there at all, for any length of time.
A good many of my constituents who I see at surgeries have been through immigration detention. All of them were released to continue with their lives. They were not removed from the country. The process was not taken any further, and they should not have been there in the first place. That happens again and again. A constituent was detained. He had a pregnant wife. Through intervention, we were able to get him released. A constituent who is Romanian was detained after being lifted by the police for begging. He had serious health problems, and he was released. A constituent who had been a victim of torture in the Central African Republic was held and eventually released. A constituent who was detained at a marriage interview was subsequently released. The Home Office goes through a modern-day cat and mouse act with some of the most vulnerable in society. They are taken in and out of immigration detention again and again. They are deeply traumatised, and that is on top of the trauma they already face because of the actions of the Home Office.
My good friend Linda Fabiani recently found that these things are happening at Dungavel as well. Through a freedom of information request, she found that, between 2014 and 2018, 19 children were detained at Dungavel. Between 2016 and 2018, six pregnant women were detained at Dungavel. That is in clear contradiction of all the things that the Home Office said it would do. What is being done to deal with the issue? I appreciate that the Minister might say that some of those are age-disputed cases, but that does not excuse the fact. Even if these young people are on the margins of that, they should be treated as children, not detained and traumatised.
Even when people get through the immigration detention system and through their applications, they face further difficulties. A constituent was in Glasgow for five years before her case was decided—she now has refugee status and was supported by the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance in Glasgow—and the Home Office continues to refer to her on her biometric residence permit by the name and date of birth under which she was trafficked. That causes her huge trauma and stress. I can provide the Minister with the details afterwards, and I ask her to intervene in that case. It is just not right that that woman has gone through so much trauma and is still being referred to by the name under which she was trafficked. That is just not acceptable, and it needs to stop.
Finally—I appreciate that time is tight—I want to talk about the costs of the system and the costs of detaining people. There is a huge cost in human lives, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley set out, but there is also a huge cost to the Department. In 2018-19, the Home Office paid out £8.2 million for 312 cases where people had been wrongfully detained. That was up from 212 people and a cost of £5.1 million in 2017-18. That does not even include all the costs of doing the immigration and detention estate, or the adverse legal costs and the cost of other compensation that the Home Office has had to pay. It is hugely expensive and traumatising, and it damages lives. As the Women for Refugee Women report points out, people are being denied their rights within the system. Will the Minister intervene urgently and ensure that no more women are held under the system?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, which is close to my heart and that of many constituents. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for bringing this debate on the immigration detention of survivors of trafficking and modern slavery to the House. She has clearly articulated the report by Women for Refugee Women, which looks at the plight of a sample of Chinese women who have been trafficked to the UK.
I have the honour and privilege of representing one of the most vibrant and diverse boroughs in our country. My constituents in Edmonton come from all over the globe. Many have arrived from Nigeria and they tell me at first hand of harrowing encounters while navigating from Nigeria to Europe. Many have been trafficked into domestic servitude or prostitution with false promises of a better life in the UK.
I will always remember the story of Julie—I have changed her name for her safety—who was chained for months to a bed in a house in Edmonton. She was forced to have unprotected sex with uncountable men. Her skin was burnt with cigarettes. She was beaten. Hot water was thrown on her naked skin. Julie eventually escaped her living nightmare because the cleaner entered the house, saw her battered body and hatched a plan to help her leave. Basically, she opened the door. Julie ran for her life and was helped by a kind passer-by and was taken to the local police station. My office got involved to help with her immigration application. Julie is now safe and has legal status, and she has started to unpack her mental trauma. Thankfully, because agencies worked together and listened to the victim, a positive outcome was concluded for Julie.
Since my election to Parliament in 2015, I have been campaigning against the immigration detention system in the UK. I visited Yarl’s Wood in November 2015 and had the honour of meeting and speaking with two women who had been trafficked to the UK, one of whom was pregnant. One of them had been in detention for almost nine months and had no idea when she was going to be released. She was at the mercy of the Home Office and its internal review system. That uncertainty was a great source of anxiety and fear for the women. Neither of them had access to adequate healthcare, even though the detention centre rules clearly stipulate that women in detention should receive the same care as the public.
Following my visit, I held my first Westminster Hall debate on healthcare in Yarl’s Wood. As many Members will be aware, Yarl’s Wood is the UK’s only predominantly female detention centre. Most of the women are victims of sexual violence and persecution in their own countries. The women I visited in Yarl’s Wood were from India and Nigeria—countries that are part of the Commonwealth family and with whom we share deep ties. It is disheartening to think that individuals from countries that have enriched our communities and culture, and who are rooted in countries we have close ties with, can end up in immigration detention. I will never forget that visit and the conversations I had there. Both as a citizen and as a parliamentarian, I was shocked, and remain so, by what goes on in Yarl’s Wood. It is scandalous to hold a pregnant woman in detention.
Like many of my constituents, it is difficult for me to reconcile our discourse on human rights, equality and justice for all as we continue to lock people up indefinitely. I am astounded that three years on, we are having a similar debate. The lack of progress should force us to reflect on our commitment to human rights and liberty, particularly as we have the boldness to encourage other countries around the world to follow them. Many will be aware that the UK has one of the largest immigration detention systems in Europe. Furthermore, we are the only country on the European continent without a statutory limit on the length of detention. This is the stuff of nightmares and reminiscent of practices seen in some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.
Human trafficking is a scourge on our society and must be properly investigated whenever it is suspected or reported. However, that has not been the case. According to Women for Refugee Women and Amnesty International’s recent research, many incidents of trafficking are missed by the Home Office decision makers, and even when they are accepted, detention is nevertheless maintained. In June this year, UK Home Office decision makers were using a country policy and information note on Nigeria for trafficked women. The policy was used to form a base of information on the UK’s analysis of Nigeria. However, on page 1 under the assessment, I found the following:
“Trafficked women who return from Europe, wealthy from prostitution, enjoy high social-economic status and in general are not subject to negative social attitudes on return. They are often held in high regard because they have improved income prospects.”
I understand that the July policy has removed that insulting text. I hope that the Minister can confirm that when she sums up.
I want to highlight a case from Amnesty’s research, which, all things considered, is very pertinent. It reported on:
“A Nigerian woman who was trafficked into the UK by her husband, who was physically abusive and forced her to engage in prostitution to provide funds for after their visas had run out. After escaping, she was fully compliant with her immigration reporting requirements, but was nevertheless detained. The sole reason given in her internal Home Office file was that there were ‘no barriers to removal’.”
Frankly, I find that inconceivable. Given the level of systematic abuse, how could the internal Home Office file attached to her say that there were “no barriers to removal”?
For Members to truly understand and appreciate the reality of immigration detention, it is necessary for all of us to critically examine the ethnicity and race of those impacted by the process. Immigration detention is a racist practice, and the policies used are racist and discriminate against certain groups. There is nothing controversial or novel about my statement. Just ask the many women and men who have been detained.
I ask the Minister to address four questions in her summing up. How does the Home Office ensure that victims of trafficking are recognised and supported? What is being done to stop indefinite detention? What medical assistance is given to victims of trafficking held in detention centres? Lastly, how are the Government implementing the adults at risk policy?
I will also take this opportunity to ask the Minister to ensure that the UK respects our responsibilities under international law and protects human rights for all of us and not just a select few.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. The record of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) stands in great esteem in this House. I apologise for missing the start of the debate; I was attending another pressing engagement. We have worked on this issue on numerous occasions and it remains close to my heart. Becoming a new Member of Parliament is extraordinary. We learn a lot very quickly. One of the first things that I learnt about was the huge indignity faced by so many people in our immigration and asylum system. The ordinary member of the public might not be aware of it.
I watched the TV series, “Years and Years”, recently and I was amused by the fact that it depicted a future dystopia in which people were arbitrarily detained. There is a creeping sense that an authoritarian regime is starting in this country, and I could not help but think of it as something that is fairly normal in this country today. The UK is the only country in Europe that has arbitrary detention without limit. Normally, that is associated with regimes and dictatorships that are not democratic. It is extraordinary that it happens in this country—the only country in Europe.
The statistics speak for themselves and of the extent of immigration detention: 27,000 people detained in one single year on average, and at any one time 2,500 to 3,000 people detained. As has been mentioned, the majority of those individuals are eventually released, anyway, so it seems to be an entirely vexatious exercise: not just one that harms those individuals and causes immense anguish and suffering but one that is hugely wasteful of talent and potential and massively financially wasteful. It costs this country £30,000 a year on average to detain those people. It is extraordinary that it happens. It is now clear that there is an emerging consensus that such a practice is no longer fit for purpose. Not only is it an affront to human rights and to every modicum of common sense in what should be a compassionate and civilised society with mercy at its heart but it is a hugely wasteful exercise.
Many people who are well qualified and in many cases have lived here for years have come to see me. People who have escaped the most appalling situations that one can scarcely even imagine have a sword of Damocles hanging over them. They do not know when a knock on the door might come. Indeed, it goes further than that. In many cases, the way in which our asylum accommodation system works is effectively an extension of the detention system. I have had reports from the Women Asylum Seeker Housing Project in Glasgow of women, terrified out of their wits, have woken up to find a housing officer standing over their bed, and of people getting out of the shower to find someone in their house. How can the Home Office possibly tolerate its contractors undertaking such behaviour? I call on the Immigration Minister to make sure that the report that I sent her about the situation in Glasgow is investigated thoroughly and that the practices of Serco and its successor contractor are thoroughly investigated and the guidelines implemented appropriately. That is just one thin end of the wedge.
Recently I visited the opening of the Saheliya childcare project in my constituency. It is a fantastic charity that works with asylum seeker women, who are often hugely disorientated when they first arrive in this country, especially if they have children and have to understand a labyrinthine system. The work that the charity does is incredible, but it is extraordinary that it is almost the exception to the rule. Unless we find people and charities willing to help, it is a lottery and the women can often fall between the gaps and can effectively be disappeared into the sinister system of immigration detention. That is just a flavour of what I have experienced in the two years or so since I was elected to Parliament. I have been aghast at the way this thing works. It is shocking, and I think I speak for everyone in this debate when I say that we are eager to see a change and we hope that the Minister will recognise our concerns.
Some of the examples that have been cited are not unfamiliar to me. However, not only women are affected. Many men are also affected. A Vietnamese gentleman in my constituency, Duc Nguyen, was trafficked to the UK to work in a cannabis farm, which was raided. He was charged and sent to jail, even though the Home Office recognised that he was a victim of human trafficking. He was released, but suddenly arbitrarily detained, even though the Home Office knew that he was a victim of trafficking. Trying to track down what happened to him was a nightmare. His friends realised he had disappeared when he was not turning up at the church where he was a volunteer. He had disappeared and nobody knew where he had gone. Trying to get legal aid and assistance was difficult because he was moved around from Dungavel to Colnbrook, where he was outwith the jurisdiction of the Scottish legal system. That is really difficult to deal with and must be addressed within the immigration system. The rules must ensure that people are not arbitrarily moved around within it to avoid giving them legal assistance. MPs are informed as a matter of routine when constituents are detained under the system so that we are able to advocate and provide assistance, rather than it being a matter of cat and mouse and hoping for the best when someone is detained and someone knows that they have disappeared, which is a common occurrence.
I had another situation with an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka who had managed to survive the Boxing Day tsunami. He broke out of the jail where he was held as a political prisoner and made it to the UK. When he went to a meeting to report and claim, members of the Sri Lankan secret police were there. They threatened him, intimidated him and threatened his family back home, because he went to try to further his Home Office case.
This man was arbitrarily detained, even though he had the right to work and his case was still under consideration. It was only because his workmates realised that he had not turned up to work—everyone wondered where he had gone; they could not trace him, and he was not at home—that it was eventually uncovered that he had been detained. He was trying to reach his solicitor. He was saying to the officers at Dungavel that he should not be there, that he had the right to work and that his Home Office case was being dealt with. They mocked him, saying, “Oh yeah—we always hear that.”
The contempt in which the people who work in the system seem to hold very vulnerable people in is appalling. No wonder 10 deaths happened from November 2016 to November 2017. It is a very suspect and horrible system. It is high time that we ended immigration detention altogether. At the very least, we could impose a limit of 28 days. I fully support the campaign. Immigration detention is a waste of life, talent and money. We should invest in these people, bring them into the heart of our communities and unleash their potential. I would like to see that happen. I hope that the Minister recognises this opportunity, and treats it as such.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing the debate and on a characteristically powerful and comprehensive introduction to the subject.
I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate. They have pointed out how well timed it is, given that two new, excellent reports have been published in recent days, one by Women for Refugee Women and one by After Exploitation. I pay tribute to groups that continue to campaign for the rights of those who have been detained. As the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said, this issue should be on the front page, but it is not. Immigration detention centres are often far out of sight and mind, and those groups do sterling work in keeping these issues on the political agenda.
As we have heard, we have had a large number of reports and expert inquiries into detention, including Stephen Shaw’s review and the reports by the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. There will be another report that touches on this subject in the not too distant future. Last week, the Home Affairs Committee continued to hear evidence on modern slavery, with some pretty damning evidence from three witnesses about the significant numbers of modern slavery and trafficking survivors being detained. A lot of excellent submissions have been made to the Committee.
All those submissions and reports highlight the same thing: the frustrating, systemic public policy failure that the hon. Member for Gedling referred to, which sees so many victims of slavery and trafficking detained. At the outset, it is important to put on the record that we remember the harm that is done by immigration detention. As Stephen Shaw explained in his first report,
“detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability”.
It is a hellish thing to inflict on anybody, especially victims of crime, and some cases were highlighted vividly and horrifyingly by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the hon. Members for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney).
On the broader question of immigration detention, as I repeat every time we debate this subject, my party and I believe that the widespread routine detention of many thousands of people for an indeterminate period in what are effectively private prisons, simply at the discretion of immigration officers, is nothing short of a scandal. It has been fairly described as a stain on our democracy and an affront to the rule of law. The current system detains too many people. It detains people who should never have been detained, and it detains people for too long and without a defined time limit. The safeguards are utterly inadequate. The system is costly and inefficient, and does not even achieve what it is supposed to, with many people being simply released back into the community again.
I recognise that there has been some progress in cutting the size of the immigration detention estate, but there is a long way to go, and we need to go much further and much faster. In terms of the detention of vulnerable victims, including trafficking and slavery survivors, some of the evidence suggests that we have gone backwards in the last few years. In short, the systems and policies are not working as they should. The adults at risk policy, in particular, is not preventing many vulnerable victims of trafficking and slavery from ending up in detention.
Signs of trafficking or slavery are being missed at various stages. Even when such signs are picked up, they are either ignored, as we have heard, not acted on, or given less weight than factors relating to immigration control. We need urgent reform to stop that happening. Importantly, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central alluded to, we need to think about changing who makes key decisions and who has oversight of them. A host of changes could and should be made to help to eliminate the detention of vulnerable people. Our policy goal must be a bar on the detention of trafficking and modern slavery victims.
As a small starting point, we need to see significant improvements in awareness and understanding of the issue among those who are most likely to encounter victims in the first place. That includes police, most obviously, and staff in the Department for Work and Pensions or elsewhere. Treating victims as criminals or as illegal immigrants, rather than recognising them as victims, is a disastrous start to the process. If we can improve the response at that stage, problems further down the line could clearly be avoided.
We also need to look again at the precise processes that are supposed to stop detention after those first encounters occur. Gatekeeping is quite simply not working. Desk-based reviews of selective information will never achieve the sensitive and informed assessment that needs to be made. The Home Office should not be balancing vulnerability against immigration control requirements. If an individual is suspected of being a victim, detention should not happen at all.
Turning to the issue I referred to of who is making decisions, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned the conflicting policy goals that the Home Office, as a Department, is wrestling with. A whole host of organisations have commented on that. Quite simply, looking after the interests of trafficking victims on the one hand, and relentlessly pursuing immigration enforcement on the other, are irreconcilable. To the greatest extent possible, we need to look at how decision making in trafficking cases can be removed from the Home Office altogether. For example, decisions about referral through the national referral mechanism for those in detention, or those being considered for detention, should be made by independent first responders or another independent body altogether.
Finally, I turn to the issue of oversight. As we know, a series of cross-party amendments have been tabled to the Immigration Bill that would introduce the time limit on detention I think everyone present seeks and that would strengthen judicial oversight. I very much hope that that becomes a reality. Given the experiences highlighted in the new Women for Refugee Women report, the report is accurately titled “From one hell to another”. We cannot have it on our conscience that, every year, we inflict that journey on hundreds—possibly even thousands—of people. I hope the Minister will listen to all the constructive suggestions that have been made, and the powerful arguments that have been made for reform, so that we stop inflicting that journey on so many victims of modern slavery and trafficking.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing the debate and for the hard work she does on this subject—as a new MP, I have witnessed the tremendous work she does. I also pay tribute to all the organisations and individuals who work on this issue day in, day out.
Survivors of trafficking and modern slavery are being locked up in immigration detention. Before I examine why that is happening, or what the solutions are, it is important for the Minister to recognise that fact and to apologise for the unimaginable harm that it is causing people as we speak. The detention of survivors of trafficking is not an accident or an isolated mistake; it is the result of a deliberate policy to create a hostile environment and to systematically erode migrants’ rights. There is a fundamental contradiction between the hostile environment and the modern slavery strategy, made worse by the fact that they are both managed by the same Department. So far, the hostile environment is winning.
The solution to the problem cannot be piecemeal. We desperately need a wholesale change in the culture and rhetoric at the Home Office. If immigration detention were used less, fewer trafficking victims would be in detention. If we had judicial oversight and a time limit on detention, fewer trafficking victims would be in detention. If there were legal aid for immigration cases, fewer trafficking victims would be in detention. Flowing down from the abhorrent rhetoric at the top, failures at every stage of trafficking survivors’interactions with Government have meant that people have ended up in detention.
Starting with how people end up in detention in the first place, there is no independent screening process when someone is detained for administrative convenience. The Home Office has a detention gatekeeper, but it only uses information that the Home Office already has about a person, and often such information does not prevent victims of trafficking or modern slavery from being detained. The Home Office is failing to communicate with itself or to pick up on clear indicators of trafficking. Thanks to the hostile environment, bodies such as the police have taken on the role of immigration enforcement.
Women for Refugee Women has encountered at least four women who were taken straight from raids on brothels and massage parlours to immigration detention. Amnesty’s briefing for this debate outlines the case of someone who was encountered during a raid on a cannabis farm. They were arrested and taken through the criminal justice system, and they served a prison sentence. On release from prison, they were taken directly to immigration detention. That happened even though the Home Office knew, and had accepted, that that person was a victim of trafficking and a survivor of sexual violence. What is striking about this failure of communication is that information-sharing works well when it comes to locking people up. It is just when it comes to trying to get people released, or not detained in the first place, that the Home Office cannot seem to communicate with itself.
Once someone is in detention, it is difficult for them to be recognised as a survivor of trafficking or modern slavery, and many people find it extremely difficult to disclose their experiences. Such experiences are traumatising, but detention is re-traumatising for many, which makes it a poor environment in which to disclose abuse. The Home Office does not create an environment that would be conducive to disclosure. Women for Refugee Women found that six of the 14 women it spoke to had their initial health screenings between 10 pm and 6 am, despite the chief inspector of prisons repeatedly recommending against that. In two cases, women’s initial health screenings were carried out by a male nurse, In another case, there was no interpreter.
Even when someone does disclose their experiences, the Home Office fails to follow correct procedure. When a rule 35 report states that someone has been a victim of trafficking, the Home Office does not always refer the case to the national referral mechanism. The quality of referrals to the NRM is poor, and there is a discrepancy in decision making both inside and outside detention. What does the Minister think is causing that discrepancy? According to the Jesuit Refugee Service, it is not uncommon for someone to be unaware that they have been referred to the NRM, and people need access to legal aid to prepare for an NRM referral in detention. A positive decision taken on reasonable grounds does not always trigger release. The Jesuit Refugee Service knows of at least three people who spent their 45-day recovery period in detention, and by all accounts, the adults at risk policy has made the situation worse for vulnerable people in detention. Caseworkers must now weigh vulnerability against immigration factors, which means that the bar for release is higher.
Some of the immigration concerns the Home Office has given to deny release are absurd. For example, the risk of abscondment is cited because someone will be released from detention into destitution, but it is the Home Office’s duty to provide support on release. Nowhere in the guidance does it say that, if a person is a victim of trafficking or modern slavery, they must be released, and such decisions are always weighed against other considerations. Will the Minister commit to changing that?
Once someone is finally released, support is often poor. Many people are released into destitution, and are at risk of being re-trafficked. If they have been refused asylum, they will be faced with study bans, have no access to English language classes, and live in isolation. Solicitors often fight to secure someone a place in a safe house. When asked to give an address for release, people may not provide a safe one. In one case, Women for Refugee Women found that a woman who had been forced into prostitution was released back to the address where she was sexually exploited before she was detained.
In conclusion, there is a basic contradiction between the Government’s modern slavery strategy and the hostile environment. If the Minister is serious about wanting to stop criminal gangs and protect survivors of trafficking, she must make it safe for people to come forward. At the moment, the traffickers’ threats that reporting abuse will get someone arrested are being proved right. We need legal aid and an independent body that makes decisions about detention. We need judicial oversight and a time limit on detention, and we must end the hostile environment. Labour would do those things. It would also close the Yarl's Wood and Brook House immigration detention centres, using the money saved to fund support for survivors of modern slavery, trafficking and domestic violence.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her tireless campaign work on the rights of women and victims of domestic violence. Many of us have heard her powerful speeches in the Chamber and Westminster Hall on several occasions, and we heard another such speech this afternoon.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this important debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) described becoming a Member of Parliament as a steep learning curve, and I assure him and others that becoming the Minister for Immigration is also a steep learning curve. I was as struck as other Members will have been when visiting immigration removal centres. One of my first visits was to Brook House, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) referred to, and my second was to Yarl’s Wood. Subsequently I have been to Campsfield House, Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, and I am conscious that our immigration removal centre estate provides a necessary service that remains part of our immigration policy. It is, however, important that when detention occurs, it takes place sparingly and in the most humane way possible.
As I said, my role as Minister for Immigration involved a steep learning curve, particularly when learning about the shocking exploitation of vulnerable individuals from overseas, who are duped by the promise of a better life in the UK. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) mentioned the false promises that some people are sold when offered a different life in the UK, and that is one of the most horrific things. In too many cases those people are not brought to the UK for a better life; they are sold into prostitution or forced labour, and tackling that abhorrent crime has always been a priority for the Government.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) mentioned the report “Supported or Deported”, and as has been stated, Home Office correspondents in that report disclosed that 507 individuals who were believed to have reasonable grounds in their trafficking cases were detained under immigration powers in 2018, either before or after receiving an NRM decision. Although that number is correct, the statement is not, because those 507 individuals were not detained after getting a positive decision on reasonable grounds to remain. As clearly stated in the freedom of information response provided by the Home Office, that figure is for people who had a positive decision on reasonable grounds to remain when entering detention, or while in detention. Further analysis of the figures shows that of those 507 people, 479 received a positive decision on reasonable grounds during a detention period. Of those, 328 were released within two days of that decision, and in total, 422 people were released within a week.
I was asked about the availability of legal assistance in immigration removal centres. All detainees in immigration removal centres are made aware of their right to legal representation and how they can obtain such representation within 24 hours of their arrival at an IRC. The Legal Aid Agency operates free legal advice surgeries across the detention estate in England. Detainees are entitled to receive up to 30 minutes of advice regardless of financial eligibility or the merits of their case. There is no restriction on the number of surgeries a detainee may attend. If a detainee requires substantive advice on a matter that is in the scope of legal aid, full legal advice can be provided.
At all IRCs, detainees who already have legal representation may receive visits from their advisers by appointment. Those visits take place in private, in designated interview rooms within sight, but not the hearing, of custody officers. Of course, detainees are also able to contact representatives by telephone.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made reference to the recent judicial review. The Home Office is always trying to build its understanding of the complex needs of victims of modern slavery and to improve the support available. That case highlights the importance of tailoring support according to the individual needs of victims. In response to it, we will embed a more needs-based approach in our services.
This is an important point. Does that mean that the arbitrary 45-day limit does not apply to any individual in those circumstances?
It is difficult for me to comment on the application to individuals, but I will certainly come back to the hon. Gentleman with a fuller response to that point.
Several comments were made about the reform of the national referral mechanism and the importance of ensuring that the NRM gets victims of modern slavery the support they need. We have made significant progress in delivering that complex reform programme, including the launch of the single competent authority, which is an expert caseworking unit responsible for all NRM decisions, regardless of an individual’s nationality or immigration status. That unit has replaced the competent authorities previously located in UK Visas and Immigration, Immigration Enforcement and the National Crime Agency. To improve the decision-making process, we have set up an independent, multi-agency assurance panel of experts to review all negative conclusive grounds decisions, adding significantly to the scrutiny such cases receive.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned the detention of children. I wish to reassure her that the UK ended the routine detention of children in immigration removal centres in 2010 and then enshrined that in primary legislation in the Immigration Act 2014. There remain limited circumstances in which children may be detained, but that is usually in a family unit immediately prior to removal. That requires ministerial authority should a family be detained for more than 72 hours, and there is a maximum of one week. I reassure her that this year—in 2019—no children have been detained at Dungavel immigration removal centre. There was one age dispute case, but the individual was found to be an adult.
The hon. Member for Edmonton mentioned women in immigration detention, and we heard from several Members about Yarl’s Wood. On 6 June this year, the independent monitoring board published its Yarl’s Wood annual report for 2018. The IMB made positive comments about the continuing efforts at the centre to retain and recruit female staff and to improve healthcare provision. We have considered all the recommendations in the report and an action plan has been drawn up in response to concerns raised. We take our responsibilities towards detainees’ health and welfare very seriously. The provision of 24-hour, seven-day-a-week healthcare in all immigration removal centres, including Yarl’s Wood, ensures that individuals have ready access to medical professionals and levels of primary care in line with individuals in the community.
The hon. Lady also raised the specific issue of victims of trafficking from Nigeria. Last summer, or perhaps last autumn, I travelled to Nigeria and listened to harrowing accounts of people who had been trafficked. I also heard about some of the measures that the Nigerian Government were taking to address what is a very serious problem in that country. I am very conscious that there are significant numbers of Nigerians among victims of human trafficking found in detention in Libya or attempting to cross the Mediterranean. A disproportionate number of Nigerian victims of international trafficking come from Edo state in the south-west, where long-standing trafficking networks operate.
Modern slavery programming in Nigeria is a cross-Government effort, with each Department—the Home Office, the Department for International Development and the National Crime Agency—working co-operatively and focusing on areas of comparative advantage. The Home Office’s own modern slavery fund programme provides support and reintegration assistance to victims of trafficking and supports the judiciary to process trafficking. In addition, DFID funding has been directed to the International Organisation for Migration to rehabilitate victims returned from Libyan detention camps. That is a separate cohort of victims from those supported by Home Office funding. There is a real need for us to continue to work with DFID to help develop livelihood options for communities at risk of trafficking in Edo state and to help local government and civil society respond to trafficking there.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton raised some issues with rule 35 of the detention centre rules. We are committed to ensuring that the rule 35 process operates effectively as a reporting system for removal centre doctors’ concerns about the welfare of detainees. In March this year, we launched our targeted consultation on the overhaul of the detention centre rules. The operation of rule 35 is a key element of that and is closely linked to the operation of the adults at risk policy. Input from non-governmental organisations, the independent detention oversight bodies and medical experts will ensure that the replacement for rule 35 better supports the identification, reporting and caseworker consideration of people with vulnerabilities. In the year 1 April 2018 to 31 March this year, 2,146 individuals were the subject of a rule 35 report made by a medical practitioner.
Various hon. Members mentioned the adults at risk policy. In September 2016, we implemented the adults at risk in immigration detention policy, a key part of our response to Stephen Shaw’s original review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention. The policy does not, as some have interpreted it as doing, mean an automatic exemption from immigration detention for any particular group of people. Under the policy, vulnerable people are detained, or their detention continued, only when the immigration considerations in their particular case outweigh evidence of vulnerability. Cases are reviewed regularly and also when new evidence comes to light.
I appreciate that there has been criticism of the adults at risk policy. However, as Mr Shaw said in his follow-up review last year,
“it would be folly to give up on the Adults at Risk policy. It is best thought of as an exercise in cultural change, and like all such programmes it will take time to reach full fruition. The focus on vulnerability that”
“has engendered is a genuine one”.
I believe that the policy will prove its full worth as it develops further and once it and the systems around it are in full alignment. Stephen Shaw made a number of recommendations for improvements in these areas and we are working hard, in conjunction with experts and in discussion with external organisations, to make the system as effective, protective and workable as possible.
It is worth remembering that the adults at risk policy replaced a policy that determined whether vulnerable people should be detained by reference to the concept of “very exceptional circumstances”. The difficulty with that approach was that nobody—caseworkers, legal representatives or detainees themselves—could interpret that in a consistent way. The adults at risk policy represents a much more coherent way of assessing the appropriateness of detention of vulnerable people and is a rational and proportionate approach.
Several hon. Members challenged me with the question, “What has changed?” That is a really important part of the comments I want to make and something I really wish to emphasise. We are committed to reducing the number of people in detention, to improving the welfare of those who are detained and to providing appropriate support to the most vulnerable in detention. Detention is used sparingly for securing the removal of individuals who do not have leave to remain in the UK, and people are detained for as short a time as possible.
We are detaining fewer people. At the end of December 2018, there were 30% fewer individuals in detention than a year earlier, and it is likely that that figure will be lower still this year. Over time, changes in legislation, policy and operational procedures will reduce the number of those detained and the duration of detention before removal, in turn improving the welfare of those detained.
The Minister referred to work done in response to Stephen Shaw’s follow-up review. Will she confirm whether the Home Office is looking again at the gatekeeper process? Those 400 individuals who had referrals made after they were put into detention will all have been through that process, yet they did so without anyone picking up signs that they were a victim of slavery or trafficking.
The gatekeeper function remains under close scrutiny. I and the many individual monitors who look at our detention system have scrutinised and continue to scrutinise the process of detention gatekeeping. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that if people have been through the detention gatekeeper function and still vulnerabilities have not been picked up, it is right that we continue to reinforce those processes.
When it comes to numbers, before 2015 there were about 4,200 detention beds in the estate. Since then, we have rationalised and modernised the estate. We have closed Campsfield immigration removal centre and reduced occupancy levels in the other IRCs, in turn improving staff-to-detainee ratios. There are almost 40% fewer beds—about 2,600 fewer—than there were four years ago, and they are of significantly higher quality.
The Minister is talking about numbers in the immigration removal centre estate. Will she tell me what has happened to the numbers of people held in the prison estate over that period?
I will have to get back to the hon. Lady with precise numbers on those in the prison estate. Of course, it is important to reflect that those in the prison estate will be foreign national offenders who have committed some crime, which has determined that they are worthy of a prison sentence.
Each time an individual is detained, there must be a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale. Those making detention decisions consider the likely duration of detention necessary in order to effect removal.
I turn to the Shaw reforms. The Home Secretary made clear his commitment to going further and faster with reforms to immigration detention with four main priorities: encouraging and supporting voluntary return; improving support for vulnerable detainees; greater transparency on immigration detention; and a new drive on dignity in detention. We are making real progress in delivering those commitments and have laid the groundwork for that progress to continue.
I emphasise a project that I am sure hon. Members will welcome and support: the development of a series of pilots of alternatives to detention. The first one started in December 2018 with our delivery partner Action Foundation in Newcastle. We have released more than 10 women from Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre to be supported in the community, and further recruitment into the pilot is under way. We want to divert women at the point of detention into the pilot to fill the remaining places.
I can report progress towards the second pilot. There is interest from several credible potential delivery partners, and we expect to have our chosen delivery partner by August, enabling the second pilot to commence in the autumn. All irregular migrants will be in scope of that project. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is independently evaluating the pilot series, and findings will be fed into the overall evaluation framework that is being developed to monitor progress across all of Shaw’s recommendations so that any findings can be examined within the context of the wider changes to detention across the Home Office. The UNHCR is also creating an independent external reference group to monitor progress and share expertise and best practice.
We are in the process of implementing other changes as a result of the Shaw review. We are introducing detention engagement teams in all IRCs, who are ensuring better induction and improved links between detainees and their caseworkers. We are also piloting the two-month auto-bail referral, which builds on measures introduced in the Immigration Act 2016 to refer cases to the tribunal at the four-month period of detention, and introducing a new drive on dignity in detention to improve facilities in immigration removal centres, including piloting the use of Skype and modernising the facilities. We are bringing greater transparency to immigration detention, and publishing more data, including on deaths and escapes from detention and on pregnant women in detention.
I reassure hon. Members that the Government are committed to providing those being considered for immigration detention with the necessary levels of protection. We have particularly stringent safeguarding arrangements in respect of vulnerable people in the immigration system.
I appreciate everything that the Minister has been saying, and some of those things show signs of improvement. There are two points I am not sure she has answered. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) asked about the Nigerian issue. Is the policy of sending people home, saying basically that prostitution was making their home country a land of milk and honey, now over? Secondly, on the Minister’s point about the Government doing safeguarding in this area, how is it that women are being taken straight from brothels to Yarl’s Wood?
The quote, which the hon. Lady has somewhat misinterpreted, has been amended to give clarification. It should not have been able to lead to such a level of misinterpretation. None of us would ever say that prostitution leads to an ideal way of life. It certainly does not. However, there is much more that we can do, working with Nigeria and our partners to address the particular problem that has arisen there with trafficked women.
The hon. Lady spoke about the safeguards we need to put in place. I will be completely candid with her, and I will give her a couple of minutes to wind up the debate. It is important that we do more. She and I recently attended a roundtable with the Minister for safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs, the Minister for Countering Extremism, Baroness Williams of Trafford, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). At that event, I said that we needed to do much better on safeguarding across Government. That was particularly in reference to victims of domestic abuse, but I am conscious that victims of trafficking are, in many instances, victims of abuse.
We must do better at safeguarding those individuals and treating them as victims. The hon. Lady and I may disagree from time to time, but we must ensure that when we share data, we do it for good reasons so that we can safeguard and protect people in vulnerable situations. There is more work to do across Government. I said at the roundtable and will repeat today: it is no good enough for just the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to be involved; we need the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education involved, too. There is a piece of joined-up Government work there to ensure that we enable victims to be treated as victims, who are safeguarded appropriately, while at the same time recognising the important role of our immigration policies now and going forward.
Jess Phillips will have the final word.
I like that sentence, Sir Gary.
I thank everyone who spoke today. The strength of feeling in this House is clear: we wish to see the figure for people in our detention estate who have suffered any form of trafficking down to zero. Many of us wish to see the end of detention.
I am heartened by the Minister’s pilot projects. This system can be handled much better in the community with proper specialist partners. I hope we can go away with some sort of assurances that the Government can hear that the first thing we should do with anyone found in a brothel or clearly in a place of exploitation is care about them, not incarcerate them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the immigration detention of survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.
Order. We can move straight on to our next debate as I see the protagonists are here. Please will those who are leaving kindly do so quietly and quickly? That would be much appreciated.