Time to put an end to indefinite detention

Hundreds of men and women are today locked up, with no release date, waiting for a deportation that

The battle to free children from immigration detention is (almost, we hope) over. But liberating innocent young people may look like child's play compared to challenging the next great injustice in our immigration system – the indefinite detention of adults.

David Cameron recently told the Arab world that "freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress", but such inspiring language is easy when condemning crazed despots and much harder when treading on volatile political ground.

"Immigrants", "asylum-seekers" and "foreign criminals", groups regularly demonised by the right-wing press and politicians, inspire limited public sympathy. Yet behind the hype is a detention system failing both detainees and the wider public by forcing human beings to live in pointless, expensive limbo (detaining one person costs £68,000 a year).

"It is simply irrational to detain people for years and then release them at the end of it," says Jerome Phelps, director of the London Detainee Support Group (LDSG) "For political reasons, there has been a lack of will from successive governments to acknowledge that there is a range of circumstances where people cannot be deported."

These circumstances include countries too unsafe for deportations and those that refuse to accept people as their citizens, often because they are political dissidents. In December 2008, LDSG examined the cases of 188 detainees who had been held for a year or more and, by last September, more than half had been released in the UK, not deported. Only 34 per cent had been deported, with almost one in ten still in detention.

UK Border Agency policy states that "detention must be used sparingly, and for the shortest period necessary" to effect deportations, but LDSG's finding that 15 of those studied had been detained for more than three years calls this into question.

One reason many people find themselves in detention is a criminal conviction – and foreign criminals get little sympathy from the courts when seeking bail – but Phelps says the term is often misleading.

"Many will have been living in the UK for years but then lost that right because of a criminal conviction," he said. "A significant number of these are immigration offences rather than violent crimes. In court there is often an assumption that each person is going to be deported so they should not be given bail. Their best hope is to get a nice judge on a good day."

But is the end of indefinite detention in sight?

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, believes the coalition government can continue early progress on civil liberties and reform detention policy.

"I continue to push for a review of the whole detention system," he said. "The coalition is determined to improve our reputation on human rights after the damage inflicted under Labour. There needs to be a serious analysis of the cost, effectiveness and impact on civil liberties of the current use of detention generally, and especially on detaining people without time limit."

Though the current system has obvious faults, building support for changing it will be difficult. Cutting immigration is a popular policy (it featured heavily in last year's televised prime ministerial debates), while fighting for a few hundred people imprisoned because no nation will accept them is unlikely to win many votes.

Yet it is the right thing to do.

The LDSG document, entitled No Return, No Release, No Reason, highlights alternatives successfully used in Sweden and Australia, where a case manager helps people engage with the immigration system while living in the community.

The report adds: "Such changes require a major shift in culture, away from the assumption that immigration control can be maintained through coercion alone."

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.