The government has rejected a call from MPs and peers to impose a time limit on immigration detention.
In a February report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights called for an end to indefinite detention of foreign nationals in so-called immigration removal centres, which they said “causes distress and anxiety and can trigger mental illness”. There is currently no limit on how long people can be held in a detention centre”.
The MPs said judicial approval should be required to detain people for longer than 28 days, and that the 28-day cap should be the “maximum, not the normal time limit”.
But the department rejected the proposal in a response yesterday, the same day the Home Office announced Seema Kennedy, a British-Iranian solicitor and former health minister, had been appointed immigration minister, replacing Caroline Nokes. However, it was Nokes who set out the department's response to the committee report in a letter, as this had been approved before last week's government reshuffle.
The department said a 28-day cap would “severely constrain the ability to maintain balanced and effective immigration control”, while any time limit "would require a significant and costly reengineering of a wide range of cross-government and judicial systems to mitigate these consequences”.
It also rejected the committee’s call to ensure decisions about whether to detain people are made independently, by saying detention must be approved by an independent person or body “fully independent of the Home Office”.
In its response, the department pointed to other initiatives it had introduced to reduce the amount of time people spend in detention, including the introduction last year of case progression panels that reassess whether people should stay in detention, or be released or deported, every three months.
But the panels have been criticised as they are made up entirely of Home Office officials. They were introduced in response to a recommendation made by the former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw in a 2016 review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention to “provide regular additional checks on continuing suitability for detention”.
In a second report last year, Shaw said the panels had not been “implemented as I had envisaged”. He criticised their lack of independence and identified “missed opportunities” to move cases forward more quickly.
In December, then-immigration minister Caroline Nokes told the committee that she wanted to see “some element of independence brought in” to case progression panels. At the same hearing, the Home Office’s head of immigration enforcement, Tyson Hepple, said the department was considering recruiting independent individuals “maybe on a voluntary basis to attend and help make judgements” on the panels.
The response said the Home Office had “identified options for independent panellists to observe panels over the summer, with a view to informing our future approach”. In the accompanying letter, Nokes said it was making “good headway in identifying independent panel members and considering potential models for their involvement in the existing case progression system”.
However, this indicates the work was some way behind schedule, as in December Hepple had said the department intended to add independent oversight to the panels “in the next few months”.
Another “safeguard” the response pointed to was a pilot to cut the length of time before most immigration detainees are given automatic referral to a bail hearing from four months, as it now stands, to two.
However, people who have been convicted of a crime are excluded from the measures and the Home Office rejected the committee’s call to extend the right to an automatic hearing to all detainees on the basis that “the first duty of government is to protect the public”.
The department also said it would continue to hold some foreign offenders who are due to be deported in prison after they have served their sentence, against the MPs’ recommendation. The department said moving them to detention centres instead would not be appropriate as the level of security in detention centres is lower.
And the department did not set out any steps it would take to fulfil the committee’s recommendation to “make the detention estate less like prisons and create as open a regime as feasible as possible on the inside”.
“Immigration removal centres are not high security prisons, nor do they operate like them,” it said.
Commenting on the response, committee chair Harriet Harman said she would continue to press for an end to indefinite detention via the upcoming Immigration Bill, which will reach the report stage in December.
"Home Office immigration detention is arbitrary, unfair and breaches human rights. Repeated detention and release, which characterises the system, shows that it must be reformed," Harman said.
"Parliament will have the opportunity to consider changing the law to protect people from arbitrary detention... I'm hopeful that with the strong cross party backing for the proposals from our committee and the Home Affairs Committee it will do so."