More detainees in immigration centres could face inhumane treatment unless a raft of recommendations – including a 28-day detention limit – are implemented in full, an inquiry chairwoman has warned.
Kate Eves – who concluded that there had been 19 incidents of mistreatment against detainees at Brook House immigration removal centre (IRC) over a five-month period in 2017 – repeated her observation that past calls to Government reform had fallen on deaf ears.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman acknowledged the “failings in both oversight and governance to protect the welfare of detained individuals” at the centre and her department will “carefully consider the findings”.
Ms Eves’ report into abuse at the detention centre near Gatwick Airport in West Sussex found there had been a “toxic” culture among staff working in “prison-like” conditions at the time, who were quick to use force.
Racist and derogatory language was also common while “unacceptable, often abusive behaviour was dismissed as banter” and mocking and dehumanising comments were made, Ms Eves said.
Among the 19 incidents of mistreatment which involved 16 men, the report cited a “terrifying” moment – which had been part of the Panorama programme – where a detention custody officer put his hands around a detainee’s neck and called him a “f****** piece of shit”, adding: “I’m going to put you to f****** sleep”.
Ms Eves has made 33 recommendations which she said must be implemented “wholesale” to effect real change and avert the risk of more mistreatment of detainees.
Calling on the Home Office to pay “more than mere lip service” to her findings, she noted a “dark thread” running throughout her report of a failure to act on previous recommendations.
She told the PA news agency: “I believe that if the recommendations aren’t implemented wholesale and that there’s not a public accountability for how those recommendations are going to be implemented that there is very much a risk that the same could happen (again).”
While she said all the recommendations are needed, she pressed the need for a 28-day time limit on detention.
She said: “The time limit of 28 days on immigration detention in a prison-like environment is incredibly important. All the evidence that I’ve seen demonstrates that. I’m not the first person to have made that recommendation. I think it is very important that that is taken account of.”
Asked if she think this will happen given the backlog in the asylum system, she told PA: “Whatever the implications may be more broadly about the backlog and the bigger picture of the asylum and immigration system, if you are going to detain people in immigration removal centres, you have to do so humanely.”
Official figures published by the Home Office last month showed the backlog of asylum cases had hit another record high.
A total of 175,457 people were waiting for an initial decision on an asylum application in the UK at the end of June 2023, up 44% from 122,213 for the same period a year earlier – the highest figure since current records began in 2010.
Of these, 139,961 had been waiting longer than six months for an initial decision, up 57% year on year from 89,231 and another record high.
Home Affairs Committee chairwoman Dame Diana Johnson said the report “sets out in shocking detail yet more failings in an asylum system that is clearly unfit for purpose”, adding that she and her fellow MPs will hold the Home Office to account as requested by the inquiry chairwoman.
Nick Armstrong KC, a barrister representing Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group which was a core participant in the inquiry, said things could get worse in light of the UK’s recently-introduced migration legislation, which places a legal duty on the Government to detain and remove those arriving illegally.
He said people must read the report carefully and “then reflect on how matters are likely to be as the Illegal Migration Act 2023 comes into force, the number of those detained exponentially increases, and the safeguards against its use and abuse reduce”.
He added: “There is a very real prospect that matters are about to get a lot worse, not better.”
Mark Hylands, solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn law firm which also represented core participants at the inquiry, said the report was “the first time immigration detention has been the subject of proper scrutiny”.
He added: “The chair’s condemnation of the Home Office’s repeated failure to learn lessons and act upon previous recommendations made to them, is striking. It is hoped such failures do not persist in light of this important report.”
The inquiry was launched in 2019, two years after BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast undercover footage showing alleged abuse towards detainees.
Ten members of staff were dismissed or resigned in the wake of the broadcast.
No prosecutions were brought after a police investigation but two former detainees successfully argued a full independent investigation was needed.
In her report, Ms Eves said she “rejected the narrative portrayed by both the Home Office and G4S in their evidence that the events at Brook House were primarily the result of a small minority of G4S staff”, saying this had only sought to “distance both organisations from their responsibility for the prevailing culture at the time”.
The chairwoman described the centre as “entirely unsuitable for detaining people for anything other than a short period of time”, but observed that a handful of people had been there for between one and two years.
Ms Eves has requested that the Government responds to her recommendations within six months.
A G4S spokesperson said they were “appalled when, in 2017, a number of former employees acted in a way that was contrary to our values, policies and their training, and for this we are sorry”.
G4S has since stopped running Brook House, with outsourcing giant Serco having taken over.
Ms Braverman told MPs in a written statement in the House of Commons that “significant improvements to immigration detention” had been made since the 2017 events, adding: “We will carefully consider the findings of this Inquiry in its detailed report, including the recommendations in relation to the management of the immigration detention estate and the welfare of detained individuals.”