Richard Fuller: Parliament should vote to put a time limit on migrant detention

29 Jun

Richard Fuller is MP for North East Bedfordshire.

Where does today’s Conservative parliamentary party stand on issues of individual liberty? This is a largely unanswered question – hidden behind the general dysfunction of the last Parliament and our current focus on tackling Covid-19 and the economics of “levelling up”.

An upcoming amendment to place a time limit for immigration detention will be an opportunity to gauge the Party’s willingness to respect the liberties of the most excluded in our society. Why is this important? Because one of the greatest assets of Global Britain is the integrity of our legal system and due process. Indefinite detention should not sully that reputation.

Under the last Labour government, Yarl’s Wood, an immigration detention centre in my constituency, imprisoned the children of undocumented migrants. David Cameron put a stop to that.

My exposure to the injustice faced by the women detained there and to the general futility of immigration detention led me to support calls for reform of the system. Bluntly, immigration detention is unjust, ineffective and costly.

Successive Conservative immigration ministers have chipped away at the shortcomings of the detention estate – limiting the detention of pregnant women, reducing the overall numbers detained and cracking down on abuse. Yet one signal change – a time limit on detention – has yet to be made.

Our immigration system depends on robust enforcement to enable those with no right to remain in the UK to be returned, but this can and should be achieved without the use of unlimited immigration detention.

The latest Home Office figures show that, just in the last year, over 6,000 people were detained for more than 28 days, and 475 for more than six months. Immigration detention can and does sometimes run into years.

The National Audit Office reported recently that, in 2019, 62 per cent of non-British citizens leaving immigration detention were not removed from the UK or voluntarily repatriated; but released into the community. This is because the Home Office detains in all manner of circumstances, including when people have a right to be in the UK – as we saw with the Windrush Generation – or where for various reasons, removal is not possible. Immigration detention is ineffective.

Set that astonishingly high failure rate against the costs of detention, and the waste of this system is laid bare. It costs over £34,000 per person per year to detain someone, almost £90 million in the last year.

Additionally, in the year ending March 2019 the Government paid over £8 million to migrants in compensation for unlawful immigration detention, and the huge costs of settling unlawful detention claims are not known. Immigration detention is costly.

Many of the women I have met have experienced torture, including sexual violence, and many have been trafficked. The Government has done much to combat trafficking and modern slavery, but our success is hollow if the most vulnerable victims of these horrific practices are themselves detained indefinitely. As Global Britain reasserts its place in the world, we should be conscious of those impediments to our role as a global leader promoting freedom under the law.

Conservative MPs have the opportunity to do that right now by supporting an amendment to the Immigration Bill for consideration at the Report Stage. The amendment introduces a 28-day time limit and early judicial oversight of continuing detention. It is a small step that will enhance our immigration enforcement by putting in place a rigorous system to ensure that the Immigration Service operates promptly and efficiently; and it will create an equitable system in keeping with our traditions of justice stretching back to the Magna Carta.