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Immigration: Detention Centres

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 17 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What other options they considered before deciding to commission a new detention centre for illegal immigrants.

My Lords, we always consider all options for enforcing the rules and removing illegal immigrants, from detention at one end of the spectrum to measures to promote compliance for low-risk people at the other. We remain convinced that it is necessary to detain people as a last resort to enforce returns. The additional detention capacity announced last month will enable us to remove more immigration offenders, including foreign national prisoners.

My Lords, why has the Minister not answered my Question for Written Answer, tabled on 5 March, concerning the Chinese community of illegal immigrants? Perhaps that is because at the current rate of repatriation, despite a secret MoU signed with the Chinese Government, it will take some 400 years at 100 people a year being repatriated, as some 40,000 are estimated to be here. Does he think that he can build his way out of this situation? Who is the winner? It is certainly not the UK taxpayers; not the immigrants who are left in limbo; and not the UK Chinese restaurants that have been raided and left with enormous fines. Are there any winners?

My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Baroness for failing to reply to her Written Question. It is going through the process and I shall be responding soon. We have a good tale to tell. We are firm but fair, and the number of people applying to get into the country is reduced to a quarter. We returned 63,000 people last year, 4,200 of whom came out of our prisons, including 20 killers, 200 sex offenders and 1,100 drug offenders. All were returned. This is a very good story and I am proud of it. Notwithstanding what some people might say, this is still a splendid country and masses of people want to get here, so we must have firm rules for returning people.

My Lords, How will the Government recoup the £30 million lost at Bicester and what improvements have been made to Harmondsworth since that severe report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons two years ago?

My Lords, the noble Earl raises a good point about Bicester. We have learnt a lot of lessons there. It was going to be built as an accommodation centre—the situation was different at that time. There were, understandably, a lot of local objections. There were issues over planning, and then the number of people trying to get into the country reduced dramatically, as I have mentioned. Yes, it was a badly run project; we have accepted that and we have accepted the PAC’s report. We have learnt a great deal, and the new buildings that we are constructing have benefited from that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it costs some £1,230 a week to keep somebody in detention; and does he agree that there should be a more rigorous examination of the decisions taken to detain, so that we do not give expensive board and lodging to people, two out of five of whom will not be deported but allowed to remain in the country? Does the Minister also agree that more effort should be made to reduce the numbers who are compulsorily sent back by increasing our liaison with the International Organization for Migration, which at present returns 250 to 300 people a month to their countries of origin voluntarily, and which says that the number could be increased?

My Lords, detention is used only when we believe that it is absolutely necessary and it is for the shortest possible time. The average detention time for an illegal immigrant is 28 days. For a family it is normally less than 72 hours, because clearly we want to look at those cases carefully. For prisoners it is longer, because it is difficult to get them back to countries. Sometimes it takes up to six months, but we keep them for as short a time as possible. We review these things. Each person has a case officer. We work on a careful case-by-case basis. I am very proud of the efforts that we put in to make sure that people are handled in a firm but fair way.

My Lords, given the current emphasis on deportation, is there not a danger that asylum applicants will be lumped together with overstayers, with illegal entrants and with former convicted criminals? Thus the innocent are likely to be treated as if they were guilty. Will this not harm our reputation overseas?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a good point, and one that I talked with my briefers about this morning. The situation is that the worst prisoners are kept in prison until they go, because they are seen as a great risk. The incident at Campsfield House at the weekend was remarkably well handled. A couple of people suffered from smoke inhalation and there was some damage to the education centre. However, apart from that, little damage was done. As a result, we are reviewing whether we should be harder on some other prisoners, some of them drug abusers. I agree that we have to be careful not to indirectly harm normal asylum seekers. We are trying to achieve this; I think that generally we do. We put those who are at the greatest risk in areas where they are not going to interact with normal asylum seekers.

My Lords, is not the whole policy back to front? If the Government got their house in order and dealt with border controls, decided what Britain needed and imposed quotas based on those needs, we would not have to behave in this inhumane way in dealing with detention and every other aspect of removal. Do we not need to get our policy right and clear in relation to people coming into this country, rather than constantly focusing on trying to get them out?

My Lords, I am afraid that I disagree with the noble Baroness: we are not inhumane at all. I cannot accept that. However, she is right about us tightening the borders. Having come into this recently, I say that, over a number of years, a number of political parties have not addressed this. The party that I belong to is now addressing this very closely. We are reinforcing the controls and, in conjunction, we are looking after our borders. As I say, this is a wonderful country, and there are millions of people who would like to come here—so, my goodness, we have to make sure those borders are secure.