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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle