The Home Office has agreed to release information about whether it has deported immigration detainees who did not have access to working phones to contact their lawyers.
An emergency ruling by the court of appeal last week prevented the authorities from removing anyone from the UK who had been held at two detention centres near Heathrow airport, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, where there had been a problem with the O2 phone network in the weeks before. The judgment came just hours before a deportation charter flight to Jamaica was due to take off from Doncaster Sheffield airport.
The decision followed a legal challenge by the charity Detention Action, which expressed concerns that mobile phone outages had prevented detainees from accessing justice. Home Office guidance states that detainees have the right to five days of access to their lawyers before any removal takes place.
The flight left with just 17 detainees onboard. Twenty-five people from the Heathrow detention centres did not fly and eight others due to board the flight issued individual challenges that meant they did not have to board the plane.
At a hearing on Tuesday, lawyers for Detention Action asked the Home Office to provide information about whether any detainees had been removed from the UK since 3 February who had not been able to contact their lawyers by phone. Mr Justice Supperstone gave the Home Office until 28 February to provide answers to that question. Depending on the Home Office response, Detention Action will consider whether or not to proceed with legal action against the Home Office.
The prime minister was reported to be furious about the court ruling last week and his adviser, Dominic Cummings, said the incident was “a perfect symbol of the British state’s dysfunction”.
In a statement, which forms part of the legal action, the Home Office has admitted that all detainees in the Heathrow detention centres were supposed to have received new non-O2 sim cards by 5 February, giving them five working days to contact their lawyers before removal. However, three detainees had no new sim until 6 February. For 16 detainees, no time or date was recorded for when they were given a new sim, and 28 out of a total of 56 earmarked for the charter flight were never given a new sim card.
The Home Office has admitted that the phone access problems began on 13 January although it didn’t begin distributing new sim cards until 5 February. Detention Action argues that potentially hundreds of detainees have been affected by a lack of access to justice as a result of this problem, not just those earmarked for last week’s charter flight to Jamaica.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said after the court hearing: “We had originally been told by the government they planned to appeal against the court of appeal’s order last week which prevented some people from boarding the flight. We found out today that the Home Office abandoned that plan.
“We took the opportunity to press for answers about whether the phone problems have been fixed and whether anyone has been removed without their right to access to justice upheld. The government now has to give us those answers by the end of this month.”