My client, PA was five months’ pregnant when she was arrested purportedly for the purpose of removal to her country. She spent 10 hours in a police cell and was transported to Yarl’s Wood, without her maternity notes or clothing. In Yarl’s Wood the antenatal care she received, in the words of the Court order, ‘did not meet the standards expected’, particularly as she missed her 20 week scan.
Other pregnant women I know who have been stuck in Yarl’s Wood include: a trafficked woman pregnant by rape; a woman who had previously miscarried and was fearful for her subsequent pregnancy; a woman who faced separation from the father, her British citizen partner; a woman who was detained until she was over seven months pregnant. Rather than being removed from the UK, the stated purpose of detaining them, all were released.
Their experience is the norm: in 2014 90% of pregnant women in Yarl’s Wood were released back into the community. The Home Office has a 90% failure rate of removing pregnant women and yet continues to detain them indefinitely.
Part of the problem is that the Home Office caseworkers often ignore the detention policy. The policy provides that pregnant women should only be detained in very exceptional circumstances unless there is a clear prospect of early removal. The policy is not properly applied in practice and pregnant women are detained when they cannot be removed imminently, if at all. Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons memorably termed Yarl’s Wood a ‘national concern’ in August of this year, and stated: ‘A large number of pregnant women had been held with little or no recorded evidence of the exceptional circumstances justifying their detention.’
PA’s case was a test case challenging the Home Office’s policy and practice of detaining pregnant women. Evidence by Maternity Action, Medical Justice and Royal College of Midwives showed that:
- No proper enquiries are made into any specific pregnancy related needs prior to detention;
- There is no proper assessment of the need for malaria prophylaxis given the life threatening risk of return of pregnant women to high risk malaria areas;
- No notice arrests and detention interrupt maternity care: records are not obtained, pregnancy books are not requested and GPs/midwives are not notified;
- Pregnant women are subject to the same method of no notice arrest, transfer to police stations and transport to an IRC as anyone else without regard to their particular needs as pregnant women;
- Once detained, safeguards to secure prompt review and release in accordance with the policy do not function properly;
- Rule 35 (the procedure to identify vulnerable detainees) does not operate as an effective method to identify the risk of deterioration of mental and physical health in respect of pregnant women;
- There is inadequate medical care of pregnant women and it is not equivalent to those in the community, as PA’s experience demonstrates.
Another problem is that there is no adequate system to monitor pregnant women in detention. The ‘Pregnant Lady Notification’ form – a title that stinks of bureaucratic chauvinism – is the only pregnancy specific document to record that a pregnant woman has been admitted to detention. The form remains on file in healthcare at Yarl’s Wood. The Home Office caseworker does not see this form, and may or may not know that the woman arrested is pregnant. This begs the question how they comply with detention policy if they do not know the woman is pregnant.
As part of the agreed terms in PA, the Home Secretary will consult and review the policy of the detention of pregnant women after the publication of the Shaw Review into the welfare of immigration detainees, commissioned on February 9 2015 by the Home Secretary, as well as issuing a new Detention Service Order on pregnant women (regarding conditions and welfare in detention) and ‘take regard’ of her equality duties in doing so.
The agreement to review the policy is significant. As has been widely reported, the terms of reference for the Shaw review exclude consideration of the exercise of detention powers. The agreement here is a window for change. Detaining pregnant women has generated widespread concern documented in the Medical Justice Report Expecting Change (2013), which was supported by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
In 2008 Asylum Aid’s Rights of Women Seeking Asylum charter called for the end of the detention of pregnant and breastfeeding women. Women for Refugee Women has called for gender specific standards for detention, including ending the detention of pregnant women. In March 2015 the Parliamentary Inquiry’s report into the Use of Immigration Detention called for the practice to end. There are many reasons why we should not detain pregnant women under immigration powers; from the lack of a time limit on administrative detention to concerns over maternity care and asylum seekers’ complex health needs. The Home Office should listen to those with expertise in antenatal care, the needs of pregnant women and end this disastrous practice.
Jane is a solicitor at Bhatt Murphy specialising in actions against the police, prison law, inquests and immigration detention. In December 2012 Jane won a 'best lawyer' award from Medical Justice for her work with women detainees at Yarl’s Wood IRC