Harriet Harman: End the cruelty of indefinite detention of migrants

Posted On: 
7th February 2019

Unaccountable, arbitrary, indefinite detention is a human rights abuse and a cruel anomaly in our system. I urge MPs on all sides to use their strength to end it, writes Harriet Harman

Unaccountable, arbitrary, indefinite detention is a human rights abuse and a cruel anomaly in our system, writes Harriet Harman
Credit: 
PA Images

There’s all the difference in the world between a parliament where the government has a big majority and one where there is no overall majority, as we have now. It’s not just that government has to wrangle with its coalition partners, the opportunities for backbenchers are transformed.

Governments with big majorities are tempted just to crack on with their manifesto promises and not to listen to backbenchers. I remember that well from being in Tony Blair’s government when we had a majority of 179 – only responding to backbenches when we had to. (Remember 90 days detention and Gurkhas’ pensions?)

Power moves to the backbenches when a government which doesn’t have a majority has to get a big raft of legislation through against a time limit. As is the case now with the Brexit-related legislation.

And so if backbenchers get together cross-party and have a good case we’ve got every chance of getting legislative change. Now many partnerships are springing up across the House – not just on the EU Withdrawal Agreement but across a host of issues. We saw that with Margaret Hodge and Andrew Mitchell teaming up to outlaw tax avoidance and money-laundering through the overseas territories. The Government recognised it couldn’t just whip it down.

Select Committees are great incubators of cross-party working and our Joint Committee on Human Rights is seeking to tackle a long-standing problem – indefinite immigration detention.

The new EU post-Brexit immigration Bill repeals free movement and brings EEA nationals and their families under general UK immigration control under the 1971 Immigration Act.

The Government says the three million EU citizens are “our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues and we want them to stay”.

That is just what was said to the Windrush Generation, but the Home Office made terrible mistakes and people who had every right to be here were wrongfully detained.

We must make sure we’ve learnt the lessons from Windrush and don’t repeat those injustices on EU citizens.

There are two problems:

  • the lack of independence in the detention decision and
  • indefinite detention

If you’re suspected of a crime you can’t be detained by government – only by the police – who are independent of government. If they want to detain you beyond 36 hours they have to bring you before a court.

But if the Home Office suspects you’re in breach of our immigration laws, there is a complete absence of independence in the decision-making.

A nameless and faceless civil servant will, behind closed doors, tick the box to detain you. There’ll be a banging on your door in the early hours of the morning, you’ll be bundled into an immigration van and taken to a detention centre.

With no independence and no scrutiny or accountability, mistakes are inevitable. Those we get to hear about are probably only the tip of the iceberg and the Home Office had to pay out £20m over five years to compensate for wrongful detention.

It’s not the case that the Windrush people were unable to prove their residence here. Their Home Office files were bulging with evidence that they’d been here since childhood. Yet they were detained not once but twice – the papers on their files ignored, the pleas of their families swept aside.

The right not to be unlawfully detained is one of our most important human rights and you shouldn’t have fewer protections from wrongful detention as an immigrant than you would if you had actually committed a crime. The right to detain should be made independent of the Home Office and we hope to amend the Immigration Bill.

One of the cruellest aspects of immigration detention is that there’s no time-limit. You have no idea whether you’ll be in the detention centre for a day, a month, or a year.

The Criminal Justice System imposes time-limits at every stage of detention while the Home Office can hold you in immigration detention indefinitely. The Human Rights Committee wants to restrict detention to 28 days and our amendment is bolstered by heavyweight cross-party backing from Andrew Mitchell, Dominic Grieve, Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, David Davis and the full support of the DUP, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and the Labour front bench.

This is not a party issue. Labour should have ended the scandal of indefinite detention when we were in government. It used to be only a very small number of people, exceptional cases, where immigration detention was used. In 1993, there were only 250 detention places. Now every year 27,000 people are detained.

Unaccountable, arbitrary, indefinite detention is a human rights abuse and a cruel anomaly in our system. I hope that backbenchers on all sides of the House will use their new strength to end it. It is long overdue. 

Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell & Peckham and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights