The Home Office should lose the power to decide whether to detain immigrants, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has said.
In a report that also called for an end to indefinite detention in immigration centres, the JCHR argued that the power to detain people immigrants was “so important that such an important power that it cannot be wielded by the department which is charged with deportations and removals”.
Last year the Home Office said it was looking into ways to add independent oversight to its detention decisions. The committee’s recommendation went further, saying the department should instead be required to ask an independent body for a detention order.
It also said conditions in immigration centres should be improved to make them “less like prisons”, and to take action against any staff found to be treating detainees poorly.
The report comes after a seven-month inquiry into immigration detention, in which the committee has heard evidence on regulations governing detention and conditions in detention centres. Its report said: “The lack of rigour in detention decisions is evidenced by the series of mistakes accepted by the Home Office in detention cases involving Commonwealth members of the Windrush generation, and the amount spent on compensation for wrongful detentions."
In a series of sessions questioning ministers, lawyers and former detainees, members of the committee have raised concerns about the number of people being detained in immigration centres, sometimes for long periods and with no indication of how long they will be held.
There is currently no limit on how long people can be held in a detention centre, which the committee said “reduces the incentive for the Home Office to progress cases promptly”.
Its report said detainees should be held for a total of no more than 28 days, except in exceptional circumstances – such as they are “seeking unreasonably to frustrate the removal process” – and that extensions should be granted by a judge.
It stressed that this cap “should be a maximum, not the normal time limit”, and that the existing pattern of most people being detailed for shorter periods should not change.
“Indefinite detention causes distress and anxiety and can trigger mental illness and exacerbate mental health conditions where they already exist,” the committee said.
Other recommendations contained in the report included ensuring detainees have enough time to prepare for immigration hearings and improving support for vulnerable adults in detention.
These constraints should be written into law, it argued, adding that the immigration and social security (EU withdrawal) bill would provide the best opportunity to change the legislation in the foreseeable future.
“Independent decision making will ensure that the initial decision to deprive a person of their liberty is robust and fully justified,” the report said.
Members of the committee said they also hoped that independent decision-making would reduce the “significant numbers” of vulnerable people who are detained each year.
The report also called on the Home Office and Foreign Office to prioritise cases of foreign nationals who are in prison and facing deportation once they are released. These foreign nationals are among the people detained for the longest periods under immigration powers, which the committee said was “inappropriate and inefficient”.
When a prisoner is due to be deported after they have served their sentence, the two departments must make arrangements for this to happen as soon as possible so people are not detained for longer than they need to be, the committee said.
Committee chair Harriet Harman said: “If a person is suspected of a crime, they cannot be detained by the government; they can be detained only by the police, who are independent of government… But if the Home Office suspects a person of being in breach of our immigration laws, there is a complete absence of independence in the decision making."
“With no independence in the decision making, and with no scrutiny or accountability, mistakes are inevitable,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Immigration detention is an important part of the wider immigration system, but we are committed to using detention sparingly and only when necessary. Ninety-five per cent of people liable for removal at any one time are managed in the community.
“Any decision to detain someone is reviewed by a detention gatekeeper who acts independently from referring and case working teams to ensure an individual’s suitability for detention has been fully assessed, and any vulnerabilities have been considered.
“An individual is only detained when there is realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale. We do not detain people indefinitely, and the law does not allow it.”