The Home Office is planning to add independent oversight to its decisions over whether to keep people in immigration detention centres “in the next few months”, amid a series of moves to reduce the number of people it detains.
Appearing before the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights last week, immigration minister Caroline Nokes said she wanted to see “some element of independence brought in” to case progression panels, which assess whether people being held in detention centres should stay there, or be released or deported. This is likely to be modelled on the independent monitoring boards that oversee conditions in the detention centres, she said.
As of the end of September, there were 2,049 people being held in immigration centres while they awaited deportation, and 25,061 people entered detention in the year up to that point.
The UK is one of the few countries in Europe that does not limit the length of time for which people judged to be in the country illegally can be detained. There have been repeated calls to end indefinite detention, most recently in a bill introduced last week by Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, and the Home Office has attracted particular criticism for detaining people who have applied for asylum.
The Home Office has been talking to non-governmental organisations about how to add independent oversight to individual case progression panels, which assess whether people should be detained, released or deported, said Tyson Hepple, director general of immigration enforcement, who also gave evidence to the committee.
He said the department was considering recruiting independent individuals “maybe on a voluntary basis to attend and help make judgements” on the panels. “I’m hoping that will come to fruition in the next few months,” he said.
During the committee hearing, Nokes also outlined a number of ways the department was working to reduce the number of people in detention, and the length of time they stayed there. She said as of next year, the Home Office will reduce the time it takes for people in detention to be given an automatic immigration bail hearing from four to two months.
In a letter sent to the committee before the hearing, Nokes said 41% fewer people had entered detention over the last year than the year before.
Meanwhile, the number of people released within a month was “edging up” – it now stands at 64% – and there was a “real focus on only keeping people in detention where a real prospect of removal”, she said.
But in a terse exchange with committee members, Nokes conceded the number of people being detained was still too high. After repeated questioning, she said: “Do I think we detain too many [people]? Well I’m saying I want to detain fewer, so I think we can deduce from that then yes, I probably do.”
However, Nokes said she was wary of introducing what she called an “arbitrary time limit” on immigration detention “that would incentivise people to try and frustrate the removal process” by causing delays.
She also said a month-long limit could lead officials to detain more people on the grounds that “it’s only a month”.
In a separate initiative to help drive down the number of people being detained, the Home Office this month launched a two-year pilot scheme in which it will manage a group of women identified as being in the UK illegally within their community, rather than detaining them in the infamous Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Further pilots trialling different approaches will be launched before this one ends, she said.
Reducing the number of people held in detention centres was one way in which the Home Office was learning lessons from controversies including the Windrush scandal that led to people being wrongfully deported and detained, Nokes told the committee.
She said a National Audit Office report published last week, which found officials had ignored warnings about how its policies could affect people from the Windrush generation, made for tough reading and underlined that decision-making had not been good enough.
She said a planned indepedent review of the Home Office’s handling of Windrush, led by former police watchdog Wendy Williams, would be “invaluable” but added “we aren’t waiting for that” to take action to prevent a similar scandal happening again.
Nokes also confirmed the review could lead to disciplinary action against officials in the department. She said the review “may well raise additional concerns” about individual civil servants’ conduct, and that it was therefore “perfectly reasonable” to say disciplinary action could follow.