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The growing Home Office panic over Britain’s detention centres

Catherine West MP is far from the only person to be denied permission to visit a detention centre. The increasingly mainstream campaigns against the likes of Yarl’s Wood have got the government rattled.

For years, immigration detention centres were a political asset. They were something for ministers to boast about when they wanted to look tough on immigration. Now, they’re becoming a liability. Legal rulings are freeing batches of detainees in their hundreds. TV exposés have revealed a culture of hatred and violence among staff. Inquiries have been set up. Even Tory backbenchers are getting uncomfortable.

Take Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre in Bedfordshire which holds mostly women. When it was opened 14 years ago, journalists were invited in to have a look around. But things have changed. The only way for Channel 4 to get cameras into the centre was to smuggle them in in secret. When they did, earlier this year, they found guards describing inmates as “animals” and “bitches” and urging each other to beat them with sticks.

Now even MPs struggle to get in. Catherine West, one of Labour’s 2015 intake, asked the Home Office to authorise an official visit shortly after she entered parliament. She waited months for a reply. Then she received an email from immigration minister James Brokenshire’s office saying: “Requests are carefully considered and planned to preserve the privacy and dignity of the individuals that are detained from a disproportionate number of visits. I’m afraid that we are not able to agree to a visit out of general interest in the centre.”

There is a cruel irony in the reference to women’s privacy and dignity. It’s exactly what anti-detention campaigners have been raising with the Home Office for years. A recent report by Women for Refugee Women found male staff routinely entering the rooms of female detainees without knocking. They saw them naked. They saw them showering. They saw them on the toilet.

“Protecting women’s privacy is a phrase we’ve used against the Home Office for years,” says Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women’s founder. “Now they’re using it to stop people visiting. It’s just unbelievable.”

West is far from the first person to be denied access to Yarl’s Wood. Last year, Rashida Manjoo, UN rapporteur on violence against women, was blocked from visiting. The Home Office originally put together the itinerary for the visit but for some reason it left Yarl’s Wood out while including several men’s detention centres. Campaigners spotted what was happening and tried to arrange a visit, but Serco, which runs the centre, blocked it.

The blinds are being pulled down over the detention estate. There is a sense of alarm in the Home Office as the campaign against detention becomes increasingly mainstream.

You can see why. A recent parliamentary inquiry into detention gave the movement some serious establishment credentials. The inquiry was the brainchild of outgoing Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather. Her team worked cleverly to give it all the trappings of a formal select committee inquiry, even though it was little more than an all-party group side project. MPs and peers from all three main parties were put on the panel, which included a former cabinet minister, a former chief inspector of prisons and a former law lord. They took evidence from detainees over video link.

The inquiry’s conclusion – that detention should be limited to 28 days – was taken up by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Tories wouldn’t follow suit, but many of the party’s backbenchers, like Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes and Richard Fuller, are becoming increasingly vocal about their discomfort with the system.

“The Home Office is very jittery about political pressure from their own backbenchers,” Detention Action director Jerome Phelps says. “In the past they were happy to talk about detention as a way of showing how tough they are. Now there are political anxieties.”

The political anxieties are set to increase with the forthcoming release of two new reports. One, led by barrister Kate Lampard, will report specifically on Yarl’s Wood. The other will consider the impact of indefinite detention on the mental health of detainees. Its findings are unlikely to be positive. Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman charged with authoring it, has been noticeably bullish about the scope of the inquiry.

Meanwhile, the Home Office has been forced to release hundreds of detainees incarcerated under “detention fast-track” after the high court ruled it to be “systemically unfair and unjust”. The entire system for fast-tracking asylum seeker claims has now been brought offline while ministers try to figure out how to respond.

But away from parliament and the courts, the real story of detention centre failure is told in the numbers. After all, the centres are only supposed to exist as a last resort to facilitate deportation. But the percentage of detainees being deported upon release has fallen from a peak of 64 per cent in the year ending March 2011, to 51 per cent in March 2015. In the first three months of this year, they fell further to just above 50 per cent, with everyone else being released into the community. Once they fall below that level, the detention system will be a failure on its own terms.

And as it fails, political support is falling away. Haslar detention centre was recently closed and a planned expansion of Campsfield was cancelled. Whatever else is happening, the Home Office has seemingly given up on trying to enlarge the detention estate.

The political backlash finally reaches the Commons this week, with a debate responding to the parliamentary inquiry set for Thursday. An issue which has been under the radar for years is now increasingly an embarrassment for the government.

Meanwhile, West is continuing with her efforts to get inside Yarl’s Wood. A petition demanding she be allowed in has clocked up over 1,800 signatures and she’ll try to raise it during PMQs this Wednesday.

“Elected members should be curious about things,” she says. “We should be visiting schools and care homes and prisons. I’ll persist. I’ll keep on going.”

Her confidence is well placed. The Home Office has never so looked so nervous about detention centres.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.