Suella Braverman has just culled inspections in detention centres – has she forgotten Manston? | David Neal and Stephen Shaw

The more the Home Office cracks down on the ‘small boats’, the greater its responsibility to their vulnerable passengers

  • David Neal is the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. Stephen Shaw CBE is the former prisons and probation ombudsman

The arrival of increasing numbers of people in small boats, and a growing backlog in the asylum system, is giving rise to a perception that the UK’s immigration system is in crisis. In response, the government has said it intends to reassert control over the country’s borders through measures that include the expanded use of immigration detention.

Some recourse to detention may be necessary to ensure that those with no right to remain in this country do not avoid immigration control. But the risks both to individuals and to our international reputation were highlighted by the recent revelations that thousands of people had been held in wholly inappropriate and unhealthy conditions for extended periods of time in the Home Office’s processing facility at Manston in Kent.

Even in a highly charged political environment marked by calls for a hard line on immigration, the government must not lose sight of its responsibility for the welfare of the people in its care. Safeguarding is particularly important in the case of immigration detainees, as people held under immigration powers lack the protections of citizenship, may have a history of trauma and may be prevented by linguistic or cultural barriers from explaining their circumstances or asserting their rights.

It is therefore disappointing to us that the home secretary has now discontinued the standing commission for the independent chief inspector for borders and immigration (ICIBI) to carry out annual reviews on the effectiveness of the Home Office’s practices and policies towards adults at risk in immigration detention.

The ending of this commission brings to a close a process of scrutiny and reform of the immigration detention system that can be traced back to 2015, when the then-home secretary, Theresa May, commissioned one of us, former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw, to examine this area. It was in response to a second Shaw review in 2018 that one of May’s successors, Sajid Javid, requested regular ICIBI inspections to ensure that policies to protect vulnerable people in detention were working as they should.

Over nearly eight years, the Shaw reviews and ICIBI inspections have reflected a commitment from ministers and officials to the reform of immigration detention. And to its credit, the Home Office has invested considerable time and energy in developing policies, procedures and teams to put this commitment into practice. But the second Shaw review in 2018, and all three recent ICIBI inspection reports – including the third and final annual report, published today – have found a gap between the Home Office’s policy intentions and what actually happens on the ground. Though many recommendations arising from our reviews and inspections have been accepted, progress in implementing them has been painfully slow.

This will not be helped by curtailing external scrutiny. We hope that this decision does not reflect a sense of complacency or a loss of interest in these issues on the part of the Home Office. While the commitment of many of those involved in immigration detention to make the system more humane has no doubt been genuine and sincere, the system still does not work well enough.

Indeed, the effectiveness of policies and procedures designed to protect vulnerable detainees continues to be undermined by the poor quality of Home Office data and by a system in which decision-making about detention takes place at a remove from the individuals being deprived of their liberty. In an environment where there is pressure to remove as many “immigration offenders” as possible, it is all too easy for people in detention to be reduced to statistics or cases, notwithstanding the Home Office’s undertaking not to lose sight of the “face behind the case”.

The pressure to maximise removals has also contributed to a culture of disbelief, with many in the Home Office predisposed to interpret a claim of vulnerability as a dishonest attempt to secure release. Ministers and officials point to rising numbers of reports of torture and modern slavery referrals as evidence of abuse of the system, when these trends may well reflect the system working as it should, with safeguards available to those who need them.

We recognise of course that there will be some people who seek to “game the system”. But the contention that safeguards are being abused on a wide scale is unevidenced. In any case, Home Office policies and procedures should be sufficiently robust to address any fraudulent claims without rolling back safeguards that exist to protect genuinely vulnerable people.

At the time of the first Shaw review and through most of the years since, it has been government policy to seek to reduce the use of immigration detention. Ministers pointed to a reduction in the size of the detention estate and to year-on-year declines in the number of detainees as evidence that their policy was working. With ministers now discussing the expansion of detention and taking steps to reopen former immigration removal centres, it is more important than ever that they retain their focus on detainee welfare and ensure that safeguards for vulnerable detainees are robust and effective. Manston was a reminder of what happens when that focus is lost.

  • David Neal is the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. Stephen Shaw CBE is the former prisons and probation ombudsman

• The headline on this article was amended on 13 January 2023. An earlier version said that regular inspections would be scrapped. However, although those by ICIBI are being stopped, inspections by other statutory bodies such as his majesty’s chief inspector of prisons will continue.


David Neal and Stephen Shaw

The GuardianTramp

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