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Yarl’s Wood: Hunger Strike

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to respond to the hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire.

My Lords, the Government take detainee welfare extremely seriously. Any detainee who chooses to refuse food and fluid, for whatever reason, is closely monitored by on-site healthcare professionals. There are a number of established ways in which detainees can make representations on their individual case and about conditions of detention. Individuals are detained only for the purposes of removal from the UK.

My Lords, about 400 people are detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, nearly all of them women. One Algerian woman came to this country at the age of 11 and has been here for 24 years. It was not until she applied for a passport that she was found to be undocumented and detained at Yarl’s Wood. She has been there for three months so far. Does the Minister agree that one of the main reasons for the hunger strikes is that people are being detained unfairly, unreasonably and indefinitely? One woman has described it as like being kidnapped, not knowing when it will end or what will happen to her. The Minister will, of course, say that the Home Office detains people only for as short a period as possible, but at the end of 2017 one person had been in immigration detention for four and a half years. Does the Minister agree that it is time to introduce a 28-day limit on immigration detention, except in wholly exceptional circumstances?

There may be a multitude of reasons for refusing food and fluid. As the noble Lord has pointed out, they may be in protest against their detention but there may also be dietary and religious reasons.

It is true; it is not a simple issue. The noble Lord pointed out that detention was not indefinite for the case he outlined. In fact, the lady had been detained for three months. Every four months, a detainee is reassessed for immigration and bail. It is fair to say that 92% of people in detention do not stay there for more than four months. The notion that someone might be detained indefinitely simply is not there. The purpose of detention is removal; it is not to detain indefinitely.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that rape is a form of torture and that victims of sexual abuse, including rape, are being held at Yarl’s Wood, despite government policy stating that victims of torture must not be detained for immigration reasons? What action will the noble Baroness take to enforce the policy of her Government in this respect?

The noble Lord is right about victims of sexual abuse being deemed vulnerable adults. Stephen Shaw made recommendations about the treatment of vulnerable adults in detention. As the noble Lord will know, we are working with NGOs on the definition of torture, because the courts challenged us on it, but we are alive to some of the vulnerable people who might be in detention for a number of reasons, including sexual abuse.

My Lords, after my noble friend Lord Hylton and I visited Yarl’s Wood, we reported back to your Lordships’ House that we had seen significant progress and improvements there. Does the noble Baroness not agree that there is a danger that that could be jeopardised for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, describes? There are some 400 people there now, some feeling a sense of real desperation. The shadow of fear hangs over them, such as the woman who came here as an 11 year-old girl and is now 35 years of age. After living in this country for 24 years, she has been taken to Yarl’s Wood. Does the noble Baroness not agree that it is worth looking at specific cases, such as of those now on hunger strike? Can she tell the House any more about the health and well-being of those currently on hunger strike and whether they have proper access to legal aid and representation?

The noble Lord is right that individual cases should always be treated sensitively. If the noble Lord could outline an individual case for me, I will certainly take it back. The last thing we want for people in detention is for them to be refusing food and fluid. Legal representation is available to people. There are specific rules on how we should treat sensitively those with mental health problems, vulnerable adults and traumatised people in detention.

My Lords, the point about indefinite detention is not that the person is never released; it is that they do not know when they will be released. We know from the evidence given to Stephen Shaw, including from a psychologist, that this has a devastating impact on mental health. Will the Minister now ask Stephen Shaw, who is reviewing how his recommendations are working, to widen his brief to include whether indefinite detention should be ended, which is in line with what happens in other countries?

As I said to the noble Lord, 92% of people in detention do not stay there for more than four months. I appreciate the noble Baroness’s point about people with mental health issues in detention. In addition to the implementation of the Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention policy in September 2016, NHS England commissioned the Centre for Mental Health to carry out research to support the Mental Health Action Plan, which is part of the Government’s commitment to review and improve the provision of mental health services in immigration removal centres and short-term holding facilities. We appreciate the stresses and strains that this can have on people’s mental health. As the noble Baroness says, it follows one of the major recommendations of Stephen Shaw’s Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons. We have now invited Stephen Shaw to carry out a short review in the autumn to assess progress against the key recommendations for action in the previous review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. The work will be completed in the spring and its findings laid before the House.

Can the Minister inform the House what percentage of those held in immigration detention centres are released back into the communities from which they came and what that tells us about the appropriateness of the numbers being detained in that way?

In terms of releasing people back into the community, somebody would be in detention only for the purposes of removal, and immigration bail would be in line with a risk assessment done on that person. I do not know the exact percentages. I will see whether they are available and, if they are, I will write to the right reverend Prelate and put a copy in the Library.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government’s policy on achieving pretty swift removal when someone should be removed and the operation of their guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention are not working? Surely one reason for the action taken by women in Yarl’s Wood, which is the sort of response one might expect from people who feel unjustly imprisoned, is that detention should be detention and not imprisonment, which is how it is regarded. Will the Government not reconsider looking at the mechanisms used in the Scandinavian countries, where work is done successfully within the community to encourage people to leave when they have no right to be there, and applying a more humane and, frankly, more effective policy such as the ones we see in those countries?

My Lords, I do not have concerns that the Government’s policy is not working. The policy is most certainly that action to get people out of detention should be taken as quickly as reasonably possible, but a reason for someone remaining in detention for longer than they might have done is that they might themselves have launched further appeals against their removal. The reasons for detention are many and complex, but the purpose of detention is to enable swift removal.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that we need a little balance on this subject? In particular, does she agree that the credibility of the immigration system depends on being able to remove people who no longer have a right to be in this country? Clearly there will be difficult cases and clearly they must be dealt with in the best possible way, but fundamentally we have to be able to remove people or the entire credibility of the system disappears.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. The purpose of detention is necessary removal. I also take his point that, although we need to deal sensitively with people who may be traumatised or have mental health problems or other reasons for being vulnerable, the ultimate aim of the detention centre is removal.