Skip to main content

Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre

Volume 719: debated on Friday 23 September 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Adam Holloway.)

I am grateful to the House for allowing me another chance to raise the proposed reopening of Campsfield House immigration removal centre, after business was so mournfully changed two weeks ago.

I start by thanking the Minister for engaging with me and my office on this issue and answering my questions today. However, I am deeply disappointed that we have to debate this issue again at all. One of my first campaigns as a parliamentary candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon was the campaign to close Campsfield House. At the time, Campsfield was a detention centre for over 200 adult men facing deportation. My community fought tirelessly for over two decades to close the centre, and make no mistake: we are ready to fight again.

The Government are now planning to reopen the centre, with an expanded capacity of 400 beds at a cost of £227 million to the taxpayer. Our opposition comes primarily from concern over the welfare of the detainees, the impact that has on everyone in the community and also the cost efficiency of this plan in the immigration detention estate. It is expensive and does not achieve its aims. But most of all, it is cruel.

I want to start with detainees’ own descriptions of Campsfield. One man detained at the centre said:

“Some of us have been here for over 3 years with no prospect of removal or any evidence of future release. There is no justification whatsoever for detaining us for such a period of time. Our lives have been stalled without any hope of living a life, having a family or any future.”

Another former detainee talked about finding solace in music:

“I tried to create a kind of musical environment around me in Campsfield. It genuinely helped me so I didn’t get too depressed. It saved me from self-harm and suicide, which I saw many people try. It made me feel like I was reaching out beyond the fences. Sometimes I think it’s ok to escape reality in that kind of a place because the reality there can feel like you are living in a nightmare.”

The nightmare of immigration detention was made much worse by failures in processes and procedures. In 2013, I uncovered that a child was being held at Campsfield. A boy was held there for between two and three months. He would have been the only child in an adult-dominated, guarded facility with barbed wire fences. He would not have been allowed to go to school and he would have been unable to interact with other children or lead any sort of normal childhood. We know very little about him other than that he was between 12 and 16. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that that was and is totally unacceptable—but he was not the only one. Another boy was incorrectly identified by social services as being an adult and was held at Campsfield for 62 days. He was 16. The chief inspector of prisons said that he

“was held by mistake and should never have been detained”.

That is fine, but there is only one way to ensure that such an atrocity does not happen again at Campsfield, and that is simply not to reopen it.

Accidental child detention is not the only concern. As detainees faced unacceptable conditions, tensions often boiled over into aggression and protest. There were riots, fires and escapes. Detainees completed suicide. One asylum seeker completed suicide at Campsfield after being detained for six months and denied bail three times. He was only 18 years old.

As hon. Members might imagine, all that causes enormous distress to the local community. It is important to note that detention has an enormous effect far beyond the fences. A volunteer visitor service was set up by local people and became the wonderful organisation Asylum Welcome, which does fantastic work to support asylum seekers across Oxfordshire and plays a pivotal role in welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

One former visitor said:

“The men detained at Campsfield House were representative of a broad range of humanity—not all were angels, although most that I spoke to were very decent people. But they were all human and therefore deserving of their human rights, and none deserved to be locked away without having committed a crime”.

That is critical: most of the detainees who passed through Campsfield were true asylum seekers—they were not criminals. The Home Office claims that Campsfield is necessary to hold foreign national offenders, yet in 2017 an average of only 98 were held at Campsfield at any one time. Why do we need a 400-bed centre away from the main airports?

Immigration detention is described by the Home Office as having a “limited, but crucial role” in helping to control our borders. There are a stringent set of circumstances in which the Government have the power to detain an individual: to enable removal from the country; to establish the basis of someone’s identity or claim; and when the Home Office suspects that someone will not comply with immigration bail. The Home Office’s own guidance states:

“Detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary.”

On the face of it, that is sensible. I make it clear to the Minister that I can see the need for a small number of detention places, very close to airports, for people to be held for an extremely short time. That is not in question. But what is happening now, with the expansion of the detention estate, starting with Campsfield, shows that there is a failure in that system.

When the chief inspector of prisons carried out a final inspection before Campsfield closed, the average length of detention was 55 days, but some men were held for “excessive periods”. The longest detention in that year was one year and five months, but we have heard from detainees who were held for more than three years. Many detainees are not held in one centre but are deported, released, or moved around the system. They are passed from one centre to another and not allowed to form relationships. An MP might advocate for them, but then they move and the MP cannot do so anymore. They do not have consistent caseworkers. That is cruel, but it is also incredibly costly.

The cost element needs to be explored. When Campsfield was open, it cost £86 a day to detain someone there, but costs have increased. In the first quarter of 2022, the average cost of holding someone in detention was £107 per day. The more individuals we detain, and the longer we keep them behind bars, the more costly it is. As the Minister may well remember, we are in a cost of living crisis. Families are struggling to afford food; pensioners cannot afford to turn their heating on. We heard this morning the Chancellor’s grand plan to tackle the economic crisis—I am sorry, but the way to solve this is not to keep detaining people at enormous cost, it is instead to invest that money in a system to improve processing times.

Taxpayers deserve a Home Office that does its job properly. Figures from the House of Commons Library reveal that the same amount of money that the Government will be spending on re-opening Campsfield could be used to fund more than 1,000 asylum caseworkers, who are desperately needed to process that backlog. Why are we not investing that money in staff? How many new caseworkers do the Government intend to bring into the system, or are they just accepting failure?

We raised concerns at the time about the welfare of those in Campsfield, but we must also understand why there has been this shift in policy. That is why this debate is so important. Campsfield was shut in 2017 off the back of the Stephen Shaw review, which concluded that the “direction of travel” for the detention estate in the UK should be “downwards”, both for reasons of welfare and for better use of public money. The Home Office agreed with that recommendation and made the decision to reduce the immigration detention estate, aiming to reduce it by almost 40%. As part of that Campsfield closed, but the Government have now changed direction and numbers are climbing to the same levels that we saw before 2019. Not only are they re-opening Campsfield, but there is another detention centre at Haslar in Hampshire, both with more beds than they had before. That is a clear, active change of policy, and we have not had an explanation for what has changed. Which recommendations in the Shaw review does the Minister now not accept?

How does that change of policy fulfil the Government’s legal obligations? There have been legal challenges on human rights grounds for those held on the detention estate, but most of those people—and this is where we must end—are not criminals. Most of those people are true asylum seekers, and 80% of those who try to claim asylum in the UK are granted asylum. When we combine the fact that there are a small number of foreign prisoners who should be detained and supported, and that 80% of those who try to claim asylum are granted asylum, I simply ask the Minister why the Government are doing this, and whether they will reverse the decision to reopen Campsfield House.

I have listened with close interest to the debate today, and I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for setting out her case in the way she did, albeit that I disagree with considerable elements of it. I will set out the case from the Government’s perspective as to why that is. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points that have been raised, as I also did in my recent letter to the hon. Lady.

Let me state at the outset that the Government are committed to a fair and humane immigration policy that welcomes those who arrive legally and, crucially, that maintains the integrity of our border and works in the interests of the people of this country. Each week, we see more people arriving in the UK after crossing the channel on small boats, putting their lives at risk and yet more money in the pockets of the evil people smugglers who exploit them. That cannot be allowed to continue, and I have set out the arguments on that many times on the Floor of the House.

Our immigration system must encourage compliance with the immigration rules, as well as protecting the public. Immigration detention is an essential part of effective immigration control and management. It is used sparingly, with 95% of people who are liable for removal from the UK managed in the community while their cases are progressed. We continue to support people to leave voluntarily wherever possible. That work happens day in, day out. It is important that the immigration removal estate can respond to changes.

We need to ensure sufficient resilience and capacity in the right locations for the men and women it is necessary to detain for the purpose of removal. That is why the April announcement on tackling illegal migration made it clear that the removal estate would be expanded. Our plans for the site of the former Campsfield House immigration removal centre in Oxfordshire are part of that expansion. I should emphasise that it would be wrong to characterise the plans as a simple reopening. We accept that by the time the centre closed in 2018 it needed significant investment, although it is worth noting that the last report by the local independent monitoring board in 2018 found the centre to be well run.

Under our plans, we will invest in significant improvement to the site, with a clear focus on welfare and safety. The new centre will provide decent, safe and secure accommodation for up to 400 men in detention. I can confirm that it will not be for the purpose of detaining families. Although planning is in the early stages, the intention is to use a mix of refurbished buildings and new-build accommodation on an area within the secure perimeter of the existing site. The refurbished part of the new centre will house approximately 160 people, compared with almost 300 in the previous centre. The refurbished accommodation will reflect current best practice, with most rooms being dual occupancy. Rooms in the new-build accommodation will all be dual occupancy.

All IRCs in England have dedicated health facilities run by doctors and nurses, commissioned by NHS England and delivered to the equivalent quality standards of services in the community. As in other IRCs in England, NHS England will commission healthcare services for the centre. In a previous ministerial capacity I visited Derwentside in County Durham, and there has been a lot of learning from the experience there. I hope it provides some reassurance to say that a bespoke healthcare offer appropriate to the site will be developed to meet the need that exists.

On riots, escapes, self-harm and suicide at the former Campsfield House centre, I want to emphasise that in developing the site, our focus is on dignity, welfare and safety. Significant improvements have been made to detention in recent years, with a programme of reforms introduced following Stephen Shaw’s 2015 and 2018 reviews of welfare in detention, to which the hon. Lady rightly referred. His reports, and others by external bodies including His Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, have informed both our strategic and tactical approach to detention.

The new IRC will not be operational until at least late 2023. Our plans are at an early stage, and we are committed to listening to local and other voices. My officials have written to local stakeholders and are listening to their views. We have already met with the local parish council, and we will continue to engage with it and others over the coming months.

On planning and procurement of services, we are reaching out to the local planning authority and we have made it clear that we will go out to the market to procure the services to run the site. We are looking both for value for money and for good quality, safe and secure accommodation that meets the needs of the residents in the facility. We have held a market engagement event with interested potential bidders, and there has been a good level of interest in delivering the services.

I want to be clear that we do not and cannot detain people indefinitely. It is not lawful to do so. The law is clear that we can detain people only where removal is a realistic prospect within a reasonable timescale, or initially to establish their identity or basis of claim. That is set out in both legislation and domestic case law. Over time, the Government have necessarily adapted their strategic approach to the use of immigration detention, in response to the international challenge of illegal migration and the need to break the business model of the evil people smuggling gangs. Decisions on the appropriateness of an individual’s detention or continued detention are always made on a case-by-case basis.

I hope I can offer some reassurance on the hon. Lady’s point about age-disputed children and the particular case that she referred to. In some cases, individuals who are detained subsequently claim to be children. When this occurs, they will usually be afforded the benefit of the doubt and released into the care of social services until a further assessment of their age has been made, unless their physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggest that they are significantly over 18, or other evidence shows that they are an adult.

I also refer the House to the measures on age assessment in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which will make a considerable difference in helping to identify, and make appropriate decisions about, the age of those who claim to be children. We will deliver those reforms at the earliest possible opportunity. We will make progress on this, because we recognise the significant safeguarding concerns that arise, in both directions, when there is a need to identify a child’s age. I was disappointed that the hon. Lady and her colleagues were not supportive of the 2022 Act, which was in many respects arguably designed to expedite cases. It aims to ensure that people are not in detention for any longer than is necessary, to end the cycle of claims and appeals, and to end the efforts made on occasion to frustrate proper removal from our country.

Of course, we want to provide certainty on individual cases as quickly as possible, and to maintain a fair immigration system in which those with a right to be here are properly cared for as quickly as possible and those who have no right to be here are removed without needless delay. That is what the reforms aim to achieve; I hope that the hon. Lady and her colleagues change their view when we enact them.

We have a series of detention safeguards, including the detention gatekeeper, case progression panels, and our “Adults at risk in immigration detention” policy, to ensure ongoing proper scrutiny of detention decisions. People are provided with written reasons for their detention when they are detained, and then at least every 28 days thereafter. That includes information about what steps have been taken in progressing their claim to remain in the UK, and/or in relation to their return.

Individuals in immigration detention can apply for bail at any time. The use of detention is subject to rigorous scrutiny, including by the independent monitoring boards, His Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and, of course, the courts. To pick up on the point about visiting, as is the case in detention facilities around the country, visiting is permitted and appropriate arrangements will be made to allow that to happen. I am certainly willing to raise with officials the voluntary work done in the hon. Lady’s community to facilitate those visits. I thank those involved in helping to organise visitation in her area.

I know that the hon. Lady had concerns about local employment when the previous centre closed, and particularly about the impact on the jobs of those who worked there when it closed. I am sure that we are in agreement on the benefits of opening a new centre for jobs in the area. The recently opened Derwentside facility provides around 200 jobs in that area. I fully expect that the reopening that we are discussing will provide several hundred jobs in the hon. Lady’s area, which is not insignificant.

Initial estimates of the operating costs were in the region of £170 million over the lifetime of the contract, as we said in the prior information notice that we published on Wednesday 21 September. Actual costs will be known only when the procurement is concluded, but the approach being taken will ensure value for money, and we anticipate that costs will be lower than that initial estimate. In addition to the operating costs, there will be building and refurbishment costs.

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution today. We have begun engagement with the council and other key local stakeholders to ensure that we have a full understanding of the impact of our plans. This debate has been a welcome opportunity to hear some of those views. We will of course reflect on what we have heard as we develop the plans. I am always happy to speak to colleagues from across the House about immigration matters that are relevant to their constituencies, and that most certainly applies to this project. More widely, we will continue driving forward the reforms needed to make our immigration system fairer and more effective. That is what the public expect, and what we are determined to deliver.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.