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Fundamental changes are needed to protect vulnerable people in immigration detention

Human rights solicitor Stephanie Hill welcomes a recent report by the former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, Stephen Shaw, on the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration. However, this is only a first step and much more needs to be done to protect detainees.

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Stephanie trained at Leigh Day and now works as a solicitor in the human rights team.
On 24 July, the Government released Stephen Shaw’s second report on the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention. The report assesses the changes introduced by the Home Office following Shaw’s first deeply critical review in January 2016.
Both reports highlight what is well-known to those who work with detainees: that immigration detention has a negative impact on mental health, and the longer someone spends in detention, the more negative the impact.
At any one time, between 2,000 and 3,000 people are detained by the Home Office under administrative immigration powers. Over the course of the year ending March 2018, over 26,000 were detained. Detention is supposed to be for the purpose of removal from the UK, but it’s widely regarded to be ineffective (as well as inhumane) with only 45% of people leaving detention to be removed. 
Shaw’s first report made 64 recommendations to the Home Office. The most significant policy change introduced since then has been the Adults at Risk policy, in September 2016.

Although stated to have the intention of reducing the number of vulnerable people in detention, the evidence submitted to Shaw by NGOs was that the policy has instead made matters worse and should be abandoned. This is unsurprising as the old policy was harder-edged and the new policy gives greater discretion to the Home Office, making enforcement through the courts much more difficult. Shaw does not go that far, instead making a number of recommendations to the existing policy which he describes as still ‘in its infancy’ and a ‘work in progress’. It remains to be seen whether or not the Home Office will implement these recommendations and the extent to which detainees will be better protected. 
In February 2018, over a year after the introduction of the policy, Shaw calculated that almost half (44%) of people in detention were accepted by the Home Office to be Adults at Risk of harm. Vulnerability has a wide definition and includes victims of torture or trafficking, pregnant women, the elderly and those suffering from serious physical and mental illnesses. 

Although there is a presumption against detention, this can be outweighed by ‘immigration factors’ even when the detainee has evidence of the highest level of risk, with the balancing exercise undertaken by Home Office officials without any medical training. This is because immigration detention is authorised by Home Office officials, with no judicial oversight unless the individual applies for bail or judicial review. 

Shaw recommends changes to the Home Office’s casework structure including independent oversight. He is critical of the fact that Home Office caseworkers have often never spoken to detainees in person or by phone. Many officials have never even stepped inside an immigration removal centre. One Home Office caseworker told Shaw ‘somewhat ruefully, that her job had been easier before [having visited an immigration removal centre] as it had been possible to consider detainees just as case files rather than as people’.

Unlike most prison sentences, detention is indeterminate. Since 2015, there has been a reduction in the average length of detention, which is welcomed by Shaw as a significant step forward. But he also highlights that the number of people held for more than six months has increased and that ‘the time that many people spend in detention remains deeply troubling’. 
Some of our clients have been detained for years before they contact us in desperation at their situation. As both the Shaw report and the recent BBC Panorama undercover footage of Brook House IRC demonstrate, this can include years of appalling treatment from staff, insufficient access to healthcare and unacceptable living conditions.
Shaw’s review and his 44 new recommendations to the Home Office are to be welcomed as a first step in the right direction. However, if the Home Office is serious about protecting vulnerable people then fundamental changes going beyond Shaw’s recommendations will be required. 

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