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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.