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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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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum