Braverman stopped immigration centre inspections despite safeguarding warnings

<span>Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA</span>
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Suella Braverman halted annual inspections of immigration detention centres such as Brook House last year, shortly after ministers received direct warnings that vulnerable people including torture victims had been left unprotected, the immigration watchdog has disclosed.

In an article for the Guardian, David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration (ICIBI), said the home secretary stopped his annual review of “adults at risk” held in removal centres last September.

The decision came days after Neal specifically warned the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, that protections must be put in place for “vulnerable detainees” and that necessary changes were moving at a “glacial pace”, he wrote.

A major inquiry revealed on Tuesday that people detained at Brook House immigration removal centre in 2017 were mistreated in “prison-like” conditions, with staff making dehumanising and racist comments and being quick to use force.

The inquiry found that people at Brook House who were supposed to be removed from the UK were subjected to degrading treatment, including being forcibly detained while naked, and were caused unnecessary pain by dangerous restrain techniques. It also said homophobic comments were made against one detainee at the centre near Gatwick airport.

Neal writes: “When I submitted my last report to the home secretary in September 2022, I called for a meeting with the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, to give him the latest findings and to convey my concern about the lack of progress in making improvements to immigration detention.

“I said that there was a need for a ‘foot on the ball moment’ and a concerted effort to do better to provide protections for vulnerable detainees.

“Discouragingly, though I had made it clear that much work remained to be done, my discussion with minister Jenrick was quickly followed by notification from the home secretary that she was terminating her predecessor’s commission for an annual ICIBI inspection,” he said.

In 2018, Sajid Javid, the then home secretary, asked the ICIBI to report each year on the effectiveness of the Home Office’s measures to safeguard vulnerable people in detention.

Neal writes that he has conducted two inspections but flaws have not been rectified and the implementation of recommendations is “proceeding at a glacial pace”.

“Even more concerning is my conclusion that the Home Office does not have the will to face up to the challenges. The department’s responses to my reports have been characterised by defensiveness and excuses rather than a commitment to improvement and positive change.”

Neal, a brigadier in the Royal Military Police who oversaw the detention of insurgents in Afghanistan, said lessons could be learned from the army’s methods.

“In all those years, under all that pressure, I never once saw my soldiers behaving in anything other than a decent, respectful and professional way with the detainees. It is all the more shocking then, that, as the Brook House inquiry has found, immigration detention staff at a site just outside Gatwick airport should have been capable of such cruelty,” he writes.

Neal’s three-year term ends in March and has not been renewed by the Home Office. Both his predecessors were reappointed for a second term.

OpenDemocracy disclosed on Monday that Home Office officials said Neal was “excessively critical” after he found the government department’s treatment of people at its facilities in Kent had been “unacceptable” in a report published in July 2022.

The 711-page Brook House inquiry report, published on Tuesday after more than three years of investigation, was ordered by the former home secretary Priti Patel after BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast undercover footage of violence against, and abuse of, vulnerable detainees at the centre in 2017.

The report identified 19 instances where the inquiry chair, Kate Eves, found “credible evidence” of acts or omissions which were capable of amounting to mistreatment under article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which says no one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The centre was found to be overcrowded, dirty and noisy from aircraft at nearby Gatwick, while there were limited activities for detainees and prolific use of the “zombie drug” spice, with evidence custody officers were bringing it into the centre.

Eves said: “Brook House was not sufficiently decent, secure or caring for detained people or its staff at a time when these events took place.”

She said it was “entirely unsuitable for detaining people for anything other than a short period of time”.

Eves made 33 recommendations which, the report said, if implemented, would ensure what happened at Brook House did not happen in the future and would provide a more humane, compassionate and professional environment.

Reacting to Neal’s comments, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “The way Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak are running away from proper scrutiny on the asylum and immigration system is completely shameful and irresponsible.

“Stopping the independent borders inspector from reviewing detention centres, and then terminating David Neal’s contract because he has produced critical reports, are both signs of a government which cannot cope with accountability or maintaining proper standards, and that is trying to hide the chaos they have created in the asylum system.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the welfare and safety of people in our care very seriously and the adult-at-risk policy remains in place alongside regular inspections by multiple statutory bodies to ensure that our detention facilities are safe, secure and humane.

“The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration continues to have the opportunity to undertake detention-related inspections through normal reporting cycles.”