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Asylum Seekers

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 15 May 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures are in place to ensure the safety and well-being of asylum seekers during periods of detention in the prison system and during their removal from the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance and we accept only the highest standards from those who manage the detention estate. Detention and removal are essential parts of effective immigration controls and it is vital that they are carried out with dignity and respect. We are working with our new escorting contractor, Mitie Care and Custody, to ensure that appropriate focus is placed on welfare considerations during removal from the UK.

My Lords, this Question is prompted by a report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, which related that there were 80 staff members on a flight organised by a subsidiary of Capita in which 23 asylum prisoners were being deported, 22 of whom were placed in waist restraints that were neither necessary, proportionate nor reasonable, in the inspector’s view. Bad language was used and the only female detainee was forced to use the toilet with the door open. How many more cases of mistreatment of prisoners and asylum seekers by the private companies engaged by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to run our prison and asylum services will Her Majesty’s Government tolerate before terminating their contracts and taking the service back in-house?

My Lords, I stress that the Government do not have a dogmatic approach to contractors where private is bad and public, or in-house, is good. It is important that the companies that we contract with meet the standards that we set when we engage them. A service improvement plan will be issued shortly. All escorts are fully trained in HOMES techniques—that is, the Home Office Manual for Escorting Safely—and they undertake regular refresher training courses. For the new contractor, which started on 1 May, we will revisit some of the assessment processes and the use of de-escalation techniques.

My Lords, have we forgotten Jimmy Mubenga? The coroner who inquired into his death during his removal recommended that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice,

“rigorously review the approved methods of restraint, and specifically the use of force in overseas removals”,

and mentioned,

“appropriate techniques and bespoke training packages”.

The Minister just mentioned training but it does not sound as though it has taken. In this case, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said:

“What we found was pre-emptive and excessive use of restraints that was indicative of poor operational practice and inadequate management”.

Will things change?

The noble Baroness will appreciate that I will not talk about individual cases, but she is absolutely right that the dignity and welfare of all people in our care is of utmost importance. Physical force should be used only after a thorough risk assessment and in consideration of each individual’s personal circumstances. Restraints should be removed at the earliest opportunity. Home Office contractors, including escorting staff, are expected to behave in a professional, calm and measured way at all times. The Home Office uses all reports resulting from use of force monitoring reviews to ensure that techniques are used proportionately, are justified and are used for the minimum period required. As I told the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, a review of dynamic risk assessment processes and the use of de-escalation techniques will be undertaken by the Home Office and the new escorting provider.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a much wider issue here? The ability to remove immigration offenders, including failed asylum seekers, is vital to the credibility of the entire immigration system. None of that excuses some of the behaviour in the report, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, but let us keep our eye on the ball. There is a wider issue here, but we need to clean up the actual mechanics.

The report in question focuses on third country removal charter flights, but the noble Lord is nevertheless absolutely right that while people should be treated properly and humanely, with risk taken proportionately, we have to ensure immigration removal for those who should not be here.

The noble Baroness told us in answer to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that there is an automatic reporting system when force is used. In the cases that have come to light from Her Majesty’s inspectorate, how many of those reports of force being used were received by the department and was the force considered proportionate by the department? What does the Home Office do when it receives these reports?

The noble Lord will know that the report was produced just today. On the proportionate use of force, I have recognised that use of de-escalation techniques will be reviewed. That will be undertaken by the Home Office and the new provider. I do not have the numbers before me but I can certainly ask and get them to the noble Lord.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s inspector’s report says:

“Clearly, some senior-level intervention is required to ensure that the situation is rectified without delay”.

Who is the most senior person in the Home Office dealing with this? What criteria have been laid down for the new provider, which will be signed off by that senior person, to ensure that this can never happen again?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out that this sort of thing should never happen again. I assume the most senior member is the most senior management person within the detention estate who organises these things. I do not have that sort of detail before me. I hope the noble Lord will appreciate that I have had very short notice of this Question. I am not trying to avoid his question. I will get back to him in writing.

My Lords, that exchange of questions illustrates perfectly the point I want to make. This is yet another example of the incompetence of the Home Office in not being able properly to supervise the performance and activities of its subcontractors. This is not a major management problem. If the Home Office really cannot manage that then truly, as a noble Lord who is a former Home Secretary said, it is not fit for purpose. What is it going to do about it?

I just explained that a service improvement plan will be released very shortly. We always have to learn from events such as this and make sure that we improve our processes and treat people properly.

My Lords, what arrangements are there so that when someone is deported to another country they will be welcomed or at least have some sort of support when they get to their new destination?

It might be helpful to the noble Lord if I say that the individuals we are referring to in the report are third country removal individuals on charter flights back to countries in Europe. These people are from all over the world. They came to Europe using the Dublin regulations but they have found themselves here. I do not think that the question that the noble Lord asks is particularly relevant to this situation.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that this case supports why we need to develop alternatives to detention as a matter of priority?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that detention is used only when all other methods of removal have failed. Detention should be used rarely, not commonly. It is not used where someone willingly leaves the country.

My Lords, given the questionable reputation of the Home Office on these issues going back many years, many of us would question whether its review of procedures that the Minister mentioned will be independent. Would it not be better if a more independent body did these reviews, maybe including Her Majesty’s inspectorate?

That is a very apposite question. In fact, we will work with HMIP to scrutinise, first, what happened and, secondly, how things can be improved.