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Immigration Detention: Brook House Inquiry

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 11 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to the findings of the Brook House Inquiry, published on 19 September 2023, in particular its recommendation for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so I draw attention to my interests as laid out in the register.

My Lords, the Government are carefully considering the findings of the Brook House inquiry, set out in its detailed report, in relation to the management of the immigration detention estate and the welfare of detained individuals. There are no plans to introduce a time limit on immigration detention.

My Lords, the inquiry exposed the dehumanising abuse of vulnerable people held in immigration detention. Unfortunately, the report’s author states that these issues remain in place today. We understand that a senior civil servant has been tasked to prepare the Government’s response, to be published “in due course”. I wonder whether “in due course” will have ended nine months from now. Perhaps the Minister could tell us. Secondly, the report’s recommendation on a time limit was meant to be alongside the Home Office guidance on imminent times of removal. Will the Home Office seriously consider that recommendation, putting it alongside the current guidance, so that people are not detained for periods for which they are not intended?

My Lords, the Government’s view is that a time limit on immigration detention would significantly impair our ability to remove those who have breached our immigration laws and refused to leave the UK voluntarily. It is likely to encourage and reward abuse, allowing those who wish to guarantee their release to frustrate the removal process until the time limit is reached. It would encourage late and opportunistic claims to be made simply to push a person over the time limit, regardless of the circumstances of their case. That would undermine our ability to maintain effective immigration control and would potentially place the public at higher risk, in particular through the release of foreign national offenders into the community.

My Lords, the Minister talks about abuse, but the abuse found in the Brook House inquiry report was by G4S staff, with terrible abuse perpetrated against some of the most vulnerable people. We believe in custody time limits in this society. Even suspected terrorists can be held for no more than 14 days. Why should these desperate people be held without limit of time?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that the supplier has changed; as of 2020, Serco now looks after this particular situation. I would also say that the vast majority of people are in fact detained for less than 28 days: 65% are detained for 28 days or less and 23% are detained for seven days or less.

My Lords, Kate Eves’s report included a number of recommendations requiring immediate and urgent implementation, because they related to serious issues such as the use of force and use of segregation. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government have now done in response to those particular recommendations? If nothing has been done, can the Minister explain why not?

My Lords, a lot of the work had already been done, because there was a report commissioned in 2016 by Stephen Shaw, who was then the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The Government acted in response to that report, before the documentary that prompted the Brook House report. The Home Office has implemented steps across the removal estate to enhance assurance and oversight of service provision. We have strengthened our capacity to provide assurance and oversight of service provision both at the Gatwick IRC and in the wider removal estate. That includes action to refresh and reinforce whistleblowing arrangements, improve information flows and analysis of complaints, address incidents and use of force and enhance supplier and Home Office engagement with detained individuals.

My Lords, I have studied the first part of the report and looked at the rest of it, and one recurring theme in that report is the gross incompetence of G4S. A number of proposals have been put forward for improvement under the new manager, Serco. Can the Minister say something about those improvements that will be made and whether he has confidence in Serco? Another recurring theme in the report is the level of drug abuse, which really seems to be quite appalling in an organisation and institution such as this. Can the Minister also say something about what will be done to solve that particular problem?

My Lords, the new contract with Serco to run the Gatwick IRC commenced in May 2020 and runs for an eight-year period. The contract provides increased staffing levels, improved use of modern technology and enhanced investment in resident activity and welfare services. We have strengthened our capacity to provide assurance and oversight of service provision at Gatwick and the rest of the removal estate, including action, as I have just said, to refresh and reinforce whistleblowing arrangements, improve information flows and analysis of complaints and address incidents and use of force. As regards the drugs point, the Government will be responding to the report in due course.

My Lords, in his original Answer, the Minister said that the Government are carefully considering the Brook House inquiry report and will respond in due course. Why has the Minister therefore told us that they have already come to the conclusion that they will ignore what the Brook House inquiry said, namely that there should be a 28-day limit on immigration detention? As my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti pointed out, that means that so-called immigration offenders are treated worse than terrorists.

That is not what I said; I said that the Government are considering the report. The cross-government working group, chaired by the director of detention services at the Home Office, is considering the report and all the recommendations, including those with wider applicability across the detention estate. As regards the 28 days, I go back to what I said earlier: in particular, we think that this would impair our ability to remove those who have breached immigration laws and refused to leave the UK voluntarily. That would particularly place the community at risk, especially if foreign national offenders were released into the community. As I say, though, the vast majority are released within 28 days anyway.

My Lords, the inquiry found that the inappropriate use of restraint and force on detained persons suffering from mental illness was common at Brook House, with healthcare staff unaware of their responsibilities to monitor the welfare of detained persons during use of restraint. Regardless of this information, the Illegal Migration Act allows for the use of force against even children across the detention estate. What steps will be taken to ensure that the use of force is continually monitored and recorded for all detainees, but particularly vulnerable adults and children, to ensure that what occurred at Brook House is never allowed to happen again?

I agree with the right reverend Prelate that it should not be allowed to happen again. As I say, the Government are obviously considering all the recommendations, and that will clearly be part of the considerations. I am confident that there is no way that such a situation would be allowed to happen again.

My Lords, recommendation 19 of the Brook House report is on the attitude and behaviour of healthcare staff. The use of force on one person who had a serious heart condition lasted for about 18 minutes, was positively harmful and put him at further risk. The recommendation is for immediate guidance for healthcare staff and mandatory training. Can the Minister tell us if that has already been brought into practice?

I agree with the noble Baroness that that was totally unacceptable, and the inquiry was obviously right to highlight it a something that needs urgent attention. As regards whether advice has been issued, I will have to come back to the noble Baroness, but I am pretty sure that those recommendations are being implemented.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, alluded to the fact that, in the case of those on bail, their detention is regulated by custody time limits. Will my noble friend the Minister agree that, in the case of immigration detention, it should always be regulated by the Hardial Singh principles, enunciated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and as reflected by the recent and now in force provisions of the Illegal Migration Act?

I thank my noble friend for that; I agree with him. I would also point out that Stephen Shaw, as I mentioned earlier, wrote a report, which he updated in 2018, on welfare in immigration detention. He said the following:

“The current Government position is to oppose a time limit (whether of 28 days or any other period), but Parliament may at some point take a different view … at present, the case for a time limit has been articulated more as a slogan than as a fully developed policy proposal”.

I am afraid that I agree with that.

Will the noble Lord tell the House how many asylum seekers are now held in detention, in limbo, with their cases unheard by us—or never to be heard by us? Is he at all ashamed that Médecins Sans Frontières is having to look after them?

I will stick to the question at hand, and will happily provide some statistics on the number of people in immigration detention as of 30 September last year. That number was 1,841, including those detained solely under immigration powers in prisons. That was 11% lower than at the end of September 2022, when there were 2,077 people in detention. I think that those numbers are encouraging and heading in the right direction.

My Lords, another of the inquiry’s findings was that vulnerable people in detention are not being afforded the appropriate protections that the safeguards recommended by Stephen Shaw are designed to provide, because of their dysfunctional operation. The latest report of the independent monitoring boards and new clinical evidence from Medical Justice—a core participant in the inquiry—show that the safeguards are still failing, including not identifying people at risk of self-harm or suicide, with serious and sometimes tragic consequences for mental and physical health. What steps are the Government therefore taking, as a matter of urgency, to ensure a more consistent and robust application of the safeguards, as called for in the inquiry report?

As I have said, the detailed recommendations remain under review, but a lot of these issues were dealt with in response to Stephen Shaw’s report of 2016, which was then updated in 2018.