What will the new UK immigration bill mean for the detention system?

Home Office appears reluctant to make changes, but review might help.


Pregnant women can be locked up indefinitely in UK immigration detention. Credit: Francesco, Flickr


The British government is doing its best to create a “hostile environment” for “illegal immigrants”. That is the stated aim of the new Immigration Bill, which politicians have been debating for the past few weeks.

A cross-party group of MPs and Lords, who recently authored an inquiry into UK immigration detention, have been arguing for tighter regulations on the Home Office’s extremely broad detention powers.

Labour’s Paul Blomfield and the Conservative Party’s Richard Fuller and David Burrowes have proposed a 28-day time limit and an outright ban on detaining certain categories of vulnerable people, such as torture victims and pregnant women.

But despite their efforts, the Home Office seems keen to maintain its wide-ranging powers. It is unlikely to introduce any significant changes to the current detention system, which has been criticised as the most draconian in the EU..


When indefinite doesn’t mean indefinite

The more reform-minded MPs and Lords are concerned that immigration detainees are sometimes kept in detention for months – and occasionally years – pending possible deportation. Psychologists say that a person’s mental health deteriorates significantly after more than one month of indefinite detention.

This has led to the MPs’ proposal for a statutory detention time limit of 28 days. Immigration Minister James Brokenshire, however, says this is unnecessary:

“There is a common misconception that detention under immigration powers is indefinite. I want to make it clear to the Committee that that is not the case.”

Mr Brokenshire goes on to argue that because under the law the government may only detain someone until such a time as their detention becomes illegal, UK immigration detention is not technically indefinite.

Awkwardly for Mr Brokenshire, Google begs to differ. As immigration barrister Colin Yeo has pointed out in his blog Free Movement, a quick web search brings up the following definition and use of the word “indefinite”:


Indefinite Google

Google’s definition of indefinite: “1. lasting for an unknown or unstated length of time. ‘they may face indefinite detention‘”


Mr Yeo says:

“That EXACTLY describes immigration detention in the UK. There is no time limit. The limits on detention are unclear and not precise. Immigration detention in the UK is ‘indefinite’.”


Vulnerable detainees

Another proposed amendment would limit the powers of the Home Office to detain vulnerable people and:

“provide that pregnant women, victims of trafficking, torture and sexual violence, and any other group prescribed by the Secretary of State, may not be detained pending an examination or decision by an immigration officer.”

Again, however, Mr Brokenshire appears reluctant to endorse the proposal, arguing that current Home Office policy does not allow detention of such people except in “exceptional circumstances”. The Guardian recently reported that in 2014, 99 pregnant women had been detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.


The Shaw Redemption?

A key player yet to enter the debate is the currently unpublished Shaw Review into the current state of the UK immigration detention system. The review, headed by former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Stephen Shaw, was commissioned by the government in response to the findings of the cross-party detention inquiry.

The report is already complete, but has so far only been shared with only a select group within the Home Office. The Home Office has reassured parliamentarians that the report will be published before the Immigration Bill completes its passage through parliament to allow its findings to be debated before the bill passes into law.

Depending on its content, the review could yet have a significant impact on how the bill evolves.

We will have more when the review is finally published, but in the meantime, please let us know your thoughts.

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