Keeping the lines open

Posted by Emma Norton on 05 July 2011

Earlier this year, Liberty received a flurry of concerned calls from welfare groups and advocates working with people in immigration detention. Without consultation, all detainees at one immigration detention centre, Tinsley House, had their mobile phones confiscated.

These were replaced with a new phone and network, run in conjunction with G4S (the private security firm running the centre) and with UK Borders Agency permission.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask – the detainees still have a phone. But to appreciate this scheme’s impact, you need to know a couple of things about immigration detention and access to phones.

First, people in such centres receive an allowance of 71p a day. From this they must buy things like stamps, toiletries and, crucially, phone credit. Access to cheap calls is vital – it allows these stressed and vulnerable people to keep in touch with loved ones, call their lawyers and retain some contact with the outside world.

Secondly, there is a presumption that those in immigration detention – not being criminals – should be allowed to keep their phones, subject to certain requirements. People find the cheapest deals, and their friends and family tend to be on the same network so they can benefit from the best-priced – often free – calls.

Under the scheme, the cost of calls became exorbitant. One gentleman we interviewed saw prices soar by a staggering 1,152 per cent. Another interviewee, with severe mental health problems (he was so distressed at being parted from his wife he couldn’t bear to see her in person), had in his medical notes a clear direction that he should be encouraged to speak to his wife at length daily. He described speaking to her as a ‘lifeline to sanity’ and his ‘only good medication’. The gentleman went from talking to her for two hours a day for free to ten minutes every other day for £2.50, if he was lucky.

Another had two young children, and telephoned them daily after school to hear about their day and every evening to read them bedtime stories. Overnight, he was prevented from doing so because of the sheer cost involved.

The scheme also meant people lost their personal phone number. The authorities pointed out that they gave people five minutes of free calls on the new phone, but this was quickly used letting contacts know the new number. Reception on the phones was apparently very poor. One befriender described trying to counsel a suicidal detainee while the line kept breaking up. Particularly nasty was the provision for high charges to 0800 and 0845 numbers – including MIND, Liberty and the Samaritans. These are often the last resort for the most desperate, and someone was making a fat profit out of them.

Most chilling was that this network could be shut down in the event of what the authorities called a ‘serious disturbance’. This would prevent people from calling their families, lawyers or journalists. Given the serious allegations coming out of immigration detention centres in recent years, this was very sinister.

Following threats of legal action from Liberty, and representations from welfare and befriender groups and the detainees themselves, UKBA abandoned the scheme. Both they and G4S conceded they hadn’t consulted detainees or advocates. But neither party has acknowledged the serious implications involved.

We are happy people will now have their phones returned, but we remain very concerned at the willingness of G4S and UKBA to nod such schemes through, apparently on the QT. We will be watching.

Emma Norton

Emma Norton

Head of Legal Casework