On 1 December, I, along with over 150 other people, made my way to the Houses of Parliament to celebrate Sanctuary in Parliament II. Organised by City of Sanctuary, and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, the event brought people together from all over the UK to call on parliamentarians to do more to welcome refugees.
As those in the committee room where Sanctuary in Parliament was being held heard from people who have been on the sharp end of the UK Government’s intransigent and inhumane immigration system — joined by a stream of MPs who dipped in-and-out in between other commitments — downstairs in the House of Commons the Immigration Bill was being debated.
I’ve written previously about how this bill is an extension of the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ agenda. It extends the right to rent provisions introduced in the last Immigration Act that, when piloted, made landlords far more likely to discriminate against anyone who is not obviously British. The bill also removes support for families who have come to the UK to seek asylum but who have been unsuccessful, an example of the Government using enforced destitution to encourage people to leave the country.
The bill does nothing to address the many concerns created by the enforcement-led nature of Home Office policy, including the UK’s reliance on wide-scale use of immigration detention. Detention was one of the central themes of Sanctuary in Parliament this year and one of those to speak was William of Freed Voices, who had been detained for two and half months before being released and granted refugee status. William asked, quite rightly, what was his detention for?
At the same time that William was asking that question, downstairs MPs were calling on the Government to change the way detention is used. MPs from the Conservatives, the SNP and Labour all pushed for reform, as the House of Commons debated several amendments that had been tabled aiming to right some of the wrongs.
For much of the afternoon, reform of the way the UK uses immigration detention dominated debates, reflecting Labour MP Keir Starmer’s remark that detention was ‘a matter of increasing concern to many in this House and beyond’. Most of the amendments sought to address the lack of a time limit on how long people can be held in detention, building on the recommendation of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention that no one should be detained for longer than 28 days.
Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s immigration spokesperson, said the possibility of introducing a time limit on detention would be a ‘piece of silver lining on the dark cloud represented by this Bill’, while the Conservative MP Richard Fuller argued for reform saying that detention ‘has moved from being a part of the immigration system to being the substantive and default position’.
Another Conservative MP David Burrowes, who like Fuller served on the parliamentary inquiry panel, responded to a claim by one of his party colleagues that a time limit would be arbitrary by pointing out that in fact ‘it is arbitrary to have an indefinite time in detention’. It is, said Burrowes, ‘an issue of fairness and due process’.
So how did the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire respond? Is there to a ‘silver lining’?
The answer would seem to be ‘not yet’.
In his reply, Brokenshire pointed to the review that Stephen Shaw has carried out into the welfare of people held in detention. This review has, Ministers have admitted, been submitted to the Home Office who are deciding on their response before publishing it. Brokenshire promised that it would be published in time for the House of Lords to take it into consideration when they debate the bill in detail in the New Year, but even so we know that the idea of a time limit was outside the review’s scope.
The immigration minister also stated that detention ‘has to have removal at its focus’ and should be used ‘sparingly and for the shortest period necessary’. This is also what Home Office guidance says. Yet, as the parliamentary inquiry found, practice does not reflect policy. The majority of people who leave detention are, like William, released into the community rather than removed. The parliamentary inquiry found the longer people are detained, the less likely they are to be removed.
Brokenshire announced that as well as the Shaw Review, the Home Office are conducting an internal review ‘in the light of our focus on efficiency and effectiveness’. More details of what this review looks like are likely to be forthcoming, but it may be too much to hope that issues of dignity and fairness are among its central themes.
So what’s next?
The Bill now makes its way to the House of Lords, where peers will hold their Second Reading debate on December 22. In-depth scrutiny of the Bill will then take place in the New Year. Peers could do worse than to hear William’s words when talking about his time being detained without a time limit:
‘When I looked forward, there was nothing.’
Jon is parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council and parliamentary lead for the Detention Forum