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House of Commons Hansard
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Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre
06 March 2018
Volume 637

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the detention centre at Yarl’s Wood.

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Ensuring that individuals abide by immigration rules is an essential part of an effective immigration system. This includes individuals leaving the UK if they have no lawful basis to remain. Of course, we all hope that those with no right to remain in the UK will leave voluntarily, and we have measures in place to assist those who wish to do so. However, this is not always the case, and detention is therefore an important tool.

The dignity and welfare of all individuals detained is of upmost importance, and any decision to detain is made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account individual circumstances. But let me be clear: Home Office officials work with any individual with no right to be in the UK, both detained—including those at Yarl’s Wood—and in the community, to assist with their return at any time, if they decide to leave the UK. In fact, 95% of people without the right to be here are managed in the community and most people detained under immigration powers spend only very short periods in detention.

In 2017, 92% of people were detained for four months or less, and nearly two thirds were detained for less than a month. As well as regular reviews of detention, individuals can apply for bail at any time. I visited Yarl’s Wood on 8 February to see that all detainees were being treated in a safe and dignified manner, and I understand that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is meeting the Home Secretary to discuss this issue very shortly.

The provision of 24-hour, seven-day-a-week healthcare in all immigration removal centres ensures that detainees have ready access to medical professionals and levels of primary care in line with individuals in the community. Any detainees who choose to refuse food or fluid, including the reducing number of residents at Yarl’s Wood who are currently refusing food, are closely monitored by on-site healthcare professionals. Home Office staff will not only ensure that detainees are informed about how their actions may impact on their health, but make it clear that we will continue to seek to progress their case. The Government are committed to protecting the welfare and dignity of those in detention and we will always set the highest standards to ensure the safety and well-being of detainees.

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The shadow Attorney General and I travelled to Yarl’s Wood detention centre on Friday 23 February to inspect conditions and speak to some of the people detained there. The Minister will be aware that I have been pressing for such access to the centre since the autumn of 2016. The timing of our visit coincided with a hunger strike by some of the detainees, who were protesting at what they described as the inhumane conditions there. But in response to my repeated inquiries, the authorities at the detention centre, the Home Office, Serco and G4S said categorically that there was no hunger strike. It now seems that we were misled.

Is the Minister aware that newspaper reports show a letter that has been sent to these women by the Home Office? The letter has been reproduced in some media outlets. It is a signed letter, on Home Office headed paper, which begins by stating that

“the fact that you are currently refusing food and/or fluid…may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated”.

To some Opposition Members, this sounds like punitive deportations for women who have dared to go on hunger strike. Furthermore, I was contacted at the weekend by lawyers and others attempting to prevent the deportation of a young woman and her mother. This is wrong. The personnel at Yarl’s Wood are paid for from the public purse, yet Members of Parliament seem to have been misled by officials. Now we learn that the Home Office is apparently threatening these women with accelerated deportation.

The Minister has a series of questions to answer. When did she first know about the hunger strike? When did she know of the existence of the threatening letters, implying that deportation would be accelerated for those continuing on hunger strike? Did she or her officials approve these letters? How is it possible to accelerate deportations and conform to natural justice, as surely all cases are expedited in any event? Does the decision for removal supersede any health concerns that a detainee may have? Is the Minister aware that the primary demand of the hunger strike is the inhumanity of what, in practice, is indefinite detention? Finally, will the Government, in line with their own policy, stop detaining women who have been trafficked or sexually abused and stop misleading this House about their detention of these most vulnerable women?

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Nobody would intentionally mislead the House. I am sure that the shadow Home Secretary was not suggesting that. I think that the allegation was of what the Clerk would consider to be a collective, rather than an individual, character.

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indicated assent.

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Very good.

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The right hon. Lady has raised some very important points. I will first clarify the circumstances in which a letter is given to individuals who may be refusing food or fluid while in detention. A letter will only be handed to people after an extensive welfare interview, which happens with a medical professional, and is used to explain to individuals the very real risk that they are putting themselves at by refusing food and fluid. We want nobody in detention to be in that situation and it is important that we explain to them the risks involved.

The letter is, in fact, part of official Home Office guidance and was published on the gov.uk website in November last year. It was agreed after consultation with NHS England, Medical Justice, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and a range of non-governmental organisations, because it is important that we get the correct information to detainees who are choosing to refuse food and fluid.

I was first aware that individuals at Yarl’s Wood were refusing food and fluid at about the same time that the right hon. Lady undertook her visit. Of course I regard it as very serious. Nobody wants detainees to be at any risk, but it is important that they should not regard this as a route to preventing their removal from this country. As I said clearly in my opening statement, ensuring that individuals abide by immigration rules is an essential part of our immigration system. I wish to do nothing that encourages them to put their own health at risk by suggesting that doing so might prevent their removal from this country.

Indeed, there are some circumstances whereby people could be prioritised, such as if we anticipated that somebody needed escorts to be removed from the country, because there is always a long wait for that service. We can also talk to embassies to understand whether there is a problem with papers from someone’s home country, and get those expedited, so that the individual can be returned to their home country as swiftly as possible.

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Accelerated processing would only be a threat if the judicial process was not seen to be fair and independent. Is it?

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is an extensive judicial process, whereby individuals seeking to stay in this country may apply to the first tier and, indeed, the upper tier tribunal at any stage in the process that they may apply for judicial review. We are determined to make the immigration system as fair as we possibly can, but also to uphold our rules.

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The large-scale, routine detention of thousands of human beings in private prisons for an indeterminate period simply at the discretion of immigration officers is, frankly, a stain on our democracy and an affront to the rule of law. This most recent horrible episode in a detention facility is far from the first, as hon. Members know, and it will not be the last unless there is radical change. Why does the UK detain more than other European countries? Why can every other EU country manage with a time limit on immigration detention, but not the UK? Why do the Government continue to detain vulnerable people, including victims of torture, to the serious detriment of their health and wellbeing? It is very welcome that the shadow Home Secretary has brought this issue to the House, but will the Government have the courage to allow this House a binding vote and the chance to make it clear that it is time for radical reform of the UK immigration detention regime and that it is time for a limit?

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Immigration officials always consider individuals in detention on a case-by-case basis and put their welfare absolutely at the forefront. Some 95% of people with no right to be in this country are managed within the community. Only 5% will be within the immigration removal centres at any one time. They are only there when there is a realistic chance of removal, and we always seek to ensure that they are removed as soon as possible.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the superb job that she is doing as Immigration Minister. My constituents in Kettering want to see firm but fair border controls, and the detention centre is absolutely part of that. Will the Minister assure me that the 5% of applicants who end up in a detention centre are there because there is a very real risk that they will abscond and we will not be able to deport them?

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There are several reasons why an individual might be in immigration detention. First and foremost, those for whom there is a realistic chance of removal from the UK may be there for a short period, as we seek to get them to removal as soon as possible. There are also those in immigration detention who are foreign national offenders and those who pose a risk to our society.

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I welcome the work that the shadow Home Secretary has done to pursue this issue. I share her concern about the state of Yarl’s Wood and some of the policies that underpin it. I understand that the Immigration Minister this weekend responded to calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) to prevent the deportation of two of her constituents from being accelerated as a result of one of them being on hunger strike. But as well as that individual case, will the Minister address the wider issue and confirm that no individual should have their case or their deportation accelerated or prioritised simply because they have gone on hunger strike or made some kind of protest in response to the very difficult conditions that they face? I am sure that she would not want that kind of punitive action to be taken in response to protest.

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We take the issue of individuals refusing food and fluid very seriously indeed. We do not want any individual to put their own health and wellbeing at risk. It is important that we have an immigration policy that includes detention, but that we administer it in as fair a way as possible, always seeking to use detention as a last resort. The right hon. Lady referred to a specific case. I am not going to comment on individual people’s immigration status on a case-by-case basis. However, it is important that I am always prepared to listen when Members ask me to review their cases.

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I thank the Minister for her statement and for the assurances that she has given the House. It is right that we have to have detention centres. Nobody likes them, but they have to exist as part of a policy that is the right policy to pursue. But will she be absolutely clear and give us all an assurance that the welfare of anybody—whatever their status may be—is always the primary concern?

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Of course the welfare of individuals at any of our immigration centres is of paramount importance. I assure my right hon. Friend that Yarl’s Wood was inspected by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons between 5 and 16 June last year, and the report was published on 15 November. In addition, Yarl’s Wood was subject to a review by Stephen Shaw, who reported in 2016. He is currently looking at the recommendations that he made and the progress that the Government—and Serco, our operative there—have made in implementing them.

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My constituency has already said no to a part of the UK Government’s immoral immigration policy—a short-term holding facility near Glasgow airport. One of the main reasons cited for that refusal was the UK’s indefinite detention policy. The UK is the only country in the EU that has indefinite detention. Is the Minister proud of that policy?

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There is an automatic review of detention after a month and at every recurring month. Individuals may apply for bail at any time. It is important to reflect on the fact that only 5% of the immigration offender population will be found in detention at any one time. We seek to manage them in the community wherever we possibly can. They will be held in detention only when there is a real risk of absconding or of public harm, or where we are seeking to move somebody to removal as soon as possible.

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I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister, but her statement that this happens only when people are at risk of absconding is not one that I recognise from immigration casework that I do every single day. A woman in my constituency rang the police because of a threat to kill her from a violent ex-husband. She was taken to Yarl’s Wood, not to a place of safety. We detained a woman who was a victim. She has now been given indefinite leave to remain because her case was going through the process. This is not an isolated case. Does the Home Office think that it keeps vulnerable women who are at risk of rape, sexual violence or domestic abuse safe by basically deterring them from calling the police because they will be sent to a detention centre?

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The hon. Lady will be aware that we have a very clear policy on adults at risk in immigration detention. I do not want any woman to be at risk of harm from either a current partner or a former partner. She raised a particular case. I urge her and all Members to bear in mind that if such cases occur in their constituencies, I will always want to look at them personally. We must remember, however, that we have in this country an immigration policy that seeks to implement the rules as they are set out, and it is important that we are able to uphold those rules at all times.

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In the Minister’s answer to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), she mentioned Stephen Shaw’s second review of the detention of people in immigration centres, particularly the experience of vulnerable people, and said that he is looking at the Home Office’s implementation of his first review. Has the second review been concluded, and has she received the report on it? If not, when does she expect to receive it, and when does the Home Office expect to publish it?

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The honest answer is no, I have not yet received it, but we anticipate it very shortly indeed.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) is travelling with the Defence Committee, but as Opelo and her mother are her constituents, she has asked me to put on record her thanks to the Minister for her intervention at the weekend. She also asked me to put on record her thanks to the Rev. Ashley Cooper and all those at Swan Bank church for the welfare support they have been giving to the immediate friends and family. Does the Minister agree that the fact that Members of Parliament have to resort to weekend telephone calls directly to Ministers to try to stop individuals from being deported before they have had their due process is a sign that the immigration system in this country is simply failing?

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I said very clearly that I was not going to comment on individual cases, but we do follow due process very closely indeed. I put on record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), to whom I spoke over the weekend and with whom I am in regular contact. It is quite right that she should be able to make those representations to me at, quite frankly, whatever time of day.

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I am very proud to be the son of immigrants and proud of this country’s record on supporting refugees and immigrants. Does the Minister understand that at the heart of her answer is an indifference, first, to indefinite detention and, secondly, to the fact that many women at Yarl’s Wood have been there for months and months, running into years? That is why many of them are refusing food. The possibility that the Government will accelerate deportation on that basis must be contrary to human rights. Can she satisfy the House that this satisfies all the obligations that the Government have to meet in their human rights record and that it is not cruel and unusual punishment?

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It is important to reflect on the fact that detention plays an important part in our immigration system and will continue to do so. Of course we put the welfare and wellbeing of individuals who are in detention at Yarl’s Wood, and at every other centre in this country, at the forefront of our policies. It is important to remember, however, that some people in detention, including foreign national offenders, are there because if they were in the community they would have very high potential to do harm.

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A constituent of mine was detained in Yarl’s Wood last summer. She was at risk of losing her eyesight due to a serious eye condition that had already left her blind in one eye and, if left untreated for a short time, risked her going blind in the other. Despite people being made aware of this information, she was left for some time before being seen by a nurse. In the end, my office had to intervene directly to ensure that urgent medical assistance was provided to my constituent, to avoid her losing her sight. This appalling case is one of many. Will the Minister make an assessment and overall review of the conditions that women in Yarl’s Wood are subject to?

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Upon detention, individuals at Yarl’s Wood are given access to a healthcare professional within two hours and then have the ability to make an appointment with a general practitioner within 24 hours. It is really important that we provide healthcare to all those in detention. That is why it is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and referral onwards to external healthcare services is also available. The hon. Lady asked whether I would review welfare at Yarl’s Wood. In fact, that is the job of the independent monitoring board, the independent inspector, and of course Stephen Shaw, whom we have asked to go back to review the recommendations that he made two years ago and provide us with an update on progress.

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How can the Minister say that the justification for detention is severe risk of harm or women absconding when so many of them are very quickly, or ultimately, released back into the community and sometimes go round the loop of “detention and release, detention and release” on a number of occasions?

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In upholding our immigration rules, we seek to assist those who have no right to be here to return home, whether on a voluntary basis or indeed, on occasion, by force. It is really important that we have an immigration system that is robust. We do not have indefinite detention. The hon. Lady will have heard me say that 92% of those held are released within four months and 63% are released within a month. It is important that we have a system where we can be confident that when we are able move people to removal, we have the capacity to do so.

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I want to put on record my support for the work that the shadow Home Secretary has been doing on this issue and for the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), who has fought tirelessly for her constituents. I am grateful that the Minister has listened and agreed to review the case. For many of us, the trouble with this is that we are talking about an environment where we know that two thirds of the women in Yarl’s Wood have experienced rape or sexual torture and that 85% of them are then released back, not deported. Does the Minister recognise that, rather than continuing to keep Yarl’s Wood open, there may be not only cheaper but much more compassionate and humane ways in which we can manage our immigration system that would speak to the best of British values?

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The hon. Lady will have heard me say that 95% of immigration offenders are in the community and only a very small proportion—5%—are in detention. However, detention does play an important part. We will keep people in detention where there is a realistic prospect of removal and where they might cause harm out in the community. It is important that we retain that facility.

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At Yarl’s Wood and many institutions like it, vulnerable people are being held for long periods, despite the fact that the majority of them have committed no crime. Does the Minister agree that there must be an urgent review of the UK’s detention system?

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I think that I have been very clear this afternoon that, although we regard detention as a last resort, it is an important part of our suite of immigration policies. We use detention to enable us to remove people from this country, to make sure that those who might cause harm in our communities are kept away from society and on occasions when we are seeking to remove foreign national offenders as quickly as we can.

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How many people in Yarl’s Wood are currently on suicide watch?

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We keep the welfare of detainees under very close supervision, and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that a reducing number of people are choosing to refuse food and fluid. Of course, where people have mental health issues or there are concerns about their health, it is absolutely right that we keep them under very close supervision.