The Home Office has presided over a dysfunctional immigration detention regime beset with “serious failings in almost every area” according to a damning report from MPs on parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee.
In a report prompted by the exposure of abuse at the Home Office’s Brook House Immigration Removal Centre near Gatwick Airport, the committee said the department had “utterly failed” to oversee the safe and humane detention of individuals in line for deportation. The report added that “too often” the Home Office did not follow its own policy and guidance.
Committee members said they were “appalled” the Home Office did not collate basic, transparent information about the number of people who were wrongfully detained, and that there was a “shocking” lack of face-to-face contact between detainees and officials deciding their fate.
They also said that the abuse of detainees by staff at G4S-run Brook House, exposed by an undercover reporter and broadcast on BBC TV’s Panorama programme, was “sadly not the first of its kind”.
Elsewhere, the report said HM Inspector of Prisons had “highlighted instances” in which senior Home Office officials had overridden the decisions of the independent review panels and refused decisions to release vulnerable detainees “without any justification”.
MPs called on the Home Office to meet its obligations to the individuals it detained in IRCs, ensuring that safe and humane management, adequate staffing levels, access to high quality healthcare and effective whistleblowing procedures were in place.
The report said its findings came against a backdrop of rising numbers of people in immigration detention in the UK. It said that last year there were an average of 2,204 people held in detention, with the immigration detention estate “one of the largest in Europe”, while in 2000 the immigration detention estate had capacity for 475 people and a further 200 in prisons.
Home Affairs Select Committee chair Yvette Cooper said the inquiry had found serious problems in every part of the immigration detention system, and that a “culture change” was required.
“Irresponsible failures by the Home Office have led to vulnerable people being wrongly detained, people being held in detention far too long, and serious failings in the operation of individual immigration removal centres,” she said.
“Reform is needed urgently to ensure the immigration detention system is fair, works sensibly, is transparent and humane. The Home Office approach to immigration detention is careless and cavalier – including casework failures, insufficient judicial safeguards, and a general lack of humanity in the system.
“Making the wrong decision on detention can have a devastating impact on people’s lives, as we saw from the Windrush scandal, but also from many other cases we have seen. The lack of any time limit and of proper judicial safeguards has allowed the Home Office to drift and delay, leaving people stuck in detention for months who really shouldn’t be there at all.”
Among a hefty list of recommendations, the committee said the Home Office should introduce a thorough face-to-face pre-detention screening process to expose potential vulnerabilities and require caseworkers involved in detention decisions to meet the individual in all cases before the decision was finalised – or in the worst-case scenario within one week.
To improve the safeguarding of individuals subject to detention, the committee said robust whistleblowing procedures should be introduced to ensure all IRCs had procedures that staff and detainees can use with complete confidence.
MPs added that the Home Office should urgently prioritise the closer monitoring of the policies, procedures and practices of its immigration detention contractors to expose inappropriate behaviour more effectively.
They also said there should be stronger judicial oversight of initial detention decisions, by subjecting them to review by a judge within 72 hours.
A Home Office spokesman said detention was an “important part” of the immigration system but should be “fair, humane and used only when absolutely necessary”, adding that 95% of people in line for removal at any given time were managed in the community.
“We do not detain people indefinitely, and the law does not allow it – most people detained under immigration powers spend only short periods in detention,” he said.
“As the home secretary made clear in our response to Stephen Shaw’s follow-up review of the welfare in detention of vulnerable people, we are committed to going further and faster with reforms to immigration detention and a comprehensive cross-government programme of work is in hand to deliver on that commitment.”