The Home Office put cost-cutting and administrative convenience over the welfare of detainees at an immigration removal centre where the infliction of pain, suffering and humiliation was "normalised", a public inquiry has heard.
A lawyer representing some of the people who were held at the Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport made the claim at the inquiry into allegations of abuse between April and August 2017.
The inquiry was initiated after investigations by the BBC’s Panorama in 2017 showed alleged assaults, humiliation and verbal abuse of detainees by officers at the site, which was contracted to G4S from 2012 to 2020 by the Home Office.
Stephanie Harrison QC, representing several former detainees, said the evidence of three senior Home Office officials at the inquiry showed “a state body that is driven by political imperatives to sacrifice welfare on the altar of enforcement and administrative convenience”.
“It relegates safeguarding of detainees to a virtual footnote in a contract that puts cost-cutting over safety and care,” she added.
“It also confirmed the utter disinterest in criticisms of its actions, failures of its policies and practices, whether by oversight bodies, judges, coroners, or its own appointed reviewer, Stephen Shaw.”
Shaw, the former prisons ombudsman, was appointed by then-home secretary Theresa May to carry out an independent review into the welfare of immigration detainees. His 2016 report urged ministers to reduce “boldly and without delay” the number of people being detained each year for both cost and wellbeing reasons. The review, and a second one in 2018, called for improvements to oversight measures and culture in detention centres, and a time limit on detention.
Harrison also accused the Home Office of being “indifferent to ensuring necessary changes to prevent the repeat of abuse and mistreatment occurring”.
On Monday, Phil Riley, the Home Office’s director of immigration detention and escorting services, apologised to detainees involved in the “distressing incidents” exposed by Panorama and for the “failures” in the Brook House contract, including the amount of Home Office supervision.
Harrison highlighted Riley’s earlier evidence at the inquiry as an example of the department’s “wilful denial” of the scale of the failures at Brook House.
Riley had refused to accept that the original “corner-cutting contract [with G4S] that baked in dangerously low staffing levels, a harsh regime and impoverished conditions” would have an impact on welfare, she said. He also had claimed the Home Office had "taken every step we could take proportionately to deliver a safe environment" and denied there was any systematic failure in 2017, Harrison added.
“The wilful denial of Home Office responsibility cannot be reconciled with the evidence the inquiry has heard,” Harrison said.
"This is important because it is the attitudes of men like these who are responsible for considering and implementing any recommendations the inquiry makes."
Harrison said Brook House should be shut down following the revelations of “shocking patterns of inhumane and degrading treatment”.
She said it is also important that senior managers at the Home Office and G4S are held to account along with frontline staff to ensure there is not a repeat of the mistreatment and abuse. She called for a “fundamentally different approach to previous failed investigations and reviews", highlighting Shaw’s 2016 review as an example.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Immigration detention plays a vital role in tackling illegal migration and protecting the public from harm.
“As counsel for the Home Office highlighted today, we have made significant improvements to detention and continue to do more as it remains vital we provide safe and secure accommodation.
“It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst the inquiry is carrying out its important work.”
Phase two of the inquiry concluded yesterday, with a timetable for the next stage yet to be released.