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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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder