Should immigration removal centres be run by private firms?

A report shows, yet again, inhumane conditions and unsafe practices (for staff and detainees alike)

A new prisons inspectorate report has condemned Brook House, an immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport, in suburban London, that has been open just a year.

Many of the 400 male detainees held at Brook House are ex-prisoners facing deportation. Some have committed serious crimes. The centre, built to the same standard as a category B prison, is designed to hold detainees for no more than 72 hours, yet the average time spent there is three months.

The report describes high use of force against detainees and the use of separation as punishment, amid staff being bullied by difficult-to-manage detainees. It makes shocking, but sadly unsurprising, reading.

The UK's 11 immigration centres are stains on the conscience of New Labour. Of these 11, eight are run by private security firms (a full list is available here), many of which have dubious records on running prisons in the US and across the world. These profit-making companies then subcontract services such as transporting detainees between centres.

This leads to patchy quality. Occasionally, services are delivered effectively and humanely. All too often, they are not.

A damning report on Campsfield House, a centre near Kidlington, Oxfordshire, run by GEO, found that the company handling transfers was "routinely handcuffing detainees rather than doing so on the basis of risk assessment". It describes "frequent unannounced and unexplained transfers, often at night, which distanced [detainees] from family and solicitors". This scenario is frequently repeated with slight variations in other reports.

It went on to say: "Hygiene in the dining room and kitchen was poor. Detainees had little faith in the cleanliness of the cutlery and staff eating in the same room were openly issued with different cutlery, suggesting that detainee suspicions were well founded. This was disrespectful and divisive."

The latest report on Campsfield says that conditions are now vastly improved. However, this is not the case everywhere. Another secure detention centre, Colnbrook, near Heathrow Airport, run by Serco, found that issues such as poor ventilation and use of force had not improved since the last visit.

It also noted "deficiencies . . . in the management of suicide and self-harm, with some inappropriate separation of vulnerable detainees and examples of excessive use of demeaning anti-ligature clothing".

The list goes on. There is no doubt that these are exceptionally challenging centres to run, with criminals awaiting deportation frequently held in and among victims of torture or persecution whose claims have either been refused or are pending investigation. All too often, little distinction is drawn between these two groups. Another issue frequently flagged up in the prison inspectorate's reports is that, given the quick turnover of staff, many are not appropriately trained.

The Detention Centre Rules 2001 state that: "The purpose of detention centres shall be to provide for the secure but humane accommodation of detained persons in a relaxed regime with as much freedom of movement and association as possible, consistent with maintaining a safe and secure environment, and to encourage and assist detained persons to make the most productive use of their time, whilst respecting in particular their dignity and the right to individual expression."

This goal is clearly not being upheld. At the very least, the role of private companies in running immigration removal centres needs to bere-examined, and closely, to make them more accountable and to ensure that they adhere to a standard that respects the basics of human dignity.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University