THE WINDUSH SCANDAL earlier this year, and the outrage of millions at the Tories’ callous treatment of so many people, has helped to shine a light on their failed hostile environment approach to immigration, and ‘deport first, ask questions later’ attitudes. One issue on which the government is rightly coming under growing pressure is the disgraceful continuing practice of indefinite detention.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid recently said he would look into how time limits on the detention of immigrants work in other countries and consider a pilot scheme to move vulnerable women into the community rather than Yarl’s Wood - as part of a wider look at detention alternatives. But no one should trust the Tories to deliver much-needed change.
It is interesting that the Home Secretary is now looking into time limits on detention when last year, Home Office minister Brandon Lewis said: “We don’t have indefinite [immigration] detention in this country. We just keep people as long as necessary.”
This astounded many of us. The reality is Britain is the only EU country that does not set a specific time limit on immigration detention. If detention is discretionary, outside due process and with little or no right to appeal, it amounts to indefinite detention, whatever spin ministers may put on it.
The overall length of detention has been increasing since 2010 when the Tory-Lib Dem coalition came to office. And while the latest figures show that there has recently been a drop in the overall detainee population, the number of people held in removal centres for more than six months has increased. Some are held for 12 months or more - there are cases of people being detained for longer than 48 months.
Furthermore, within this system, more than half of all immigration detainees are eventually released and allowed to remain, which raises the question of why it was necessary to deprive them of their liberty in the first place. As the government finally commits to reviewing how time limits on the detention of immigrants work in other countries, Labour is clear that indefinite detention needs to end.
I was an MP in the 1990s when detention centres were introduced, and we were told that there would be no need for strict rules of due process because no one would be detained longer than 28 days. When some of us raised the lack of safeguards and due process, ministers insisted that this detention would be very short term, but this has clearly not been the case.
A spotlight was shone in 2017 on these issues when a Panorama programme, looking into the harsh conditions in the Brook House detention centre, made findings so horrifying that even those of us who thought we knew about the abuses in immigration detention were shocked. I saw from my own visit to Yarl’s Wood how conditions there have caused so much pain to vulnerable women we should have been protecting.
Labour will close both Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres. In both, people are being kept in detention for months, even years, on end. They have included members of the Windrush generation, victims of torture, women who are refugees, and victims of sexual exploitation.
It was also recently revealed that 104 pregnant women have been detained in UK removal centres since the major Shaw review in 2016 recommended an end to detention of women expecting children. A further scandal is that that we pay £10 million a year to private contractors Serco to run Yarl’s Wood and £11.2 million for G4S to run Brook House. Instead, Labour would take back this money and put it directly into services to support the survivors of modern slavery, trafficking and domestic violence.
Private firms have no business in making vast profits through running detention, but this government and its predecessors have long had an obsession with enriching the private sector from the public purse. They cling to this mantra whatever the cost, either financially, in shoddy service, or in human misery.
The whole approach to immigration detention – part of the discredited hostile environment policy - has failed. It is inhumane, costly and not fit for purpose. The time has come for a new approach, where we stop scapegoating migrants for good.
is shadow Home Secretary