With such widespread support for immigration detention reform, the Government is out on a limb

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 11 September 2015

Yesterday saw MPs from across the House debate immigration detention in the wake of a cross-party parliamentary report published in March. The Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the UK looked at alternatives to detention across the world, concluding that  “decisions to detain should only be taken as a genuinely last resort and to effect removal.”  

Amongst its recommendations were calls for automatic bail hearings; improved access to legal assistance; greater protections against the detention of victims of trafficking and torture; and an end to the detention of pregnant women. At the forefront of the report was an urgent call for the introduction of a 28-day statutory limit on immigration detention.

The overwhelming support for the Inquiry’s recommendations, voiced throughout the debate, shows just how far we have come on this issue. Fifteen years after the detained fast track was introduced by Tony Blair’s Government, Labour MPs rose to proudly support the Party’s manifesto commitment to end unlimited detention. SNP members were unanimous in their calls for what Spokesperson for the Scotland Office, Margaret Ferrier, described as the need to “introduce some humanity into the cold mechanics of the home office”. Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael was similarly unequivocal – if he could make one change to the system it would be to place a time limit on detention.  

Whilst all those who spoke did so with courage and conviction, the real wake-up call for Government lies in the number and strength of contributions from its own benches. Senior conservative backbenchers, Richard Fuller and David Burrowes, sponsored the debate along with Labour colleague Paul Blomfield all three served on the parliamentary inquiry and were scathing in their critique of the detention system.

For Richard Fuller, the issue is close to home. Yarl's Wood IRC – housing hundreds of female detainees  is in his constituency and, following a harrowing HMIP report published in autumn, he told the Government they must close the infamous detention centre. More broadly he argued that parliament must “demand change from the Government” of a system which is costly, ineffective and unjust.

Former conservative Shadow Justice Minister and current member of the Home Affairs Committee, David Burrowes, spoke in similarly strong terms. He emphasised the urgent need for a time limit and flagged up the effective alternatives to detention used in countries like Sweden and Australia. 

New conservative MPs were also out in force. Mims Davies, Member of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities, drew attention to the lack of gender understanding in the immigration system, as well as the suffering caused by unacceptable delays. Conservative member of the Home Affairs Committee and new MP Nusrat Ghani spoke powerfully about the need for greater focus on the welfare of detainees. Conservative Mark Menzies told the House of the plight of his constituent, a victim of trafficking “treated in ways we wouldn’t treat a criminal”. Along with Conservative colleague Jeremy Lefroy, he drew attention to the unacceptably long periods of detention faced by the frightened and the vulnerable. Henry Smith, PPS to the Secretary of State for Local Government, added his voice to calls for a more effective, compassionate and cost-effective system.

Save for the muted response of Immigration Minister James Brokenshire, the House was unanimous in its calls for the change, most making explicit their support for a 28-day cut-off.  So far the Government remains intransigent, confirming yesterday that it has no plans to legislate for a limit on detention. 

But how long it can continue to block reform which has such widespread support?

Liberty believes that the use of limitless detention – unashamedly for administrative convenience and far removed from the enforcement of removal decisions – represents one of the greatest stains on this country’s human rights record in recent decades. With a paper-thin majority and the threat of an uprising on its own benches, the Government is out on a limb. Liberty will be looking for legislative opportunities to renew calls for a 28-day statutory limit on detention. 

Many of those in detention are asylum seekers. The battle to end limitless detention is part of our broader efforts to inject some compassion into UK asylum policy which has seen us shamed on the international stage. 

We will be marching on Saturday at the Solidarity with Refugees demonstration in London, and our Director Shami Chakrabarti will be speaking – please consider joining us and making your voice heard.  

  • Read our briefing on the immigration detention debate.
Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager