I warned ministers about our disgraceful UK detention centres. Their solution? Stop the inspections

Today’s inquiry report into mistreatment at Brook House should mark a crucial turning point for the notorious immigration detention centre.

The long-awaited findings, which identified 19 instances of mistreatment, including inappropriate use of force against 10 detainees and initially failing to help a detainee following a suicide attempt, found that the immigration removal centre was a place of “stress and distress”. A total of 33 recommendations, including a 28-day time limit for holding detainees, was issued to make the centre more humane.

Yet, over the last two years, in my position as the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration (ICIBI), I have issued my own reports, with findings similar to those published in the Brook House inquiry – and found that little has changed as a result.

These inspections were requested by the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, in 2018, and asked the ICIBI to issue an annual report on the effectiveness of the Home Office’s measures to safeguard vulnerable people in detention. They were implemented after two landmark reviews of immigration detention by the former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw, and were meant to bring greater openness and scrutiny to the system, as well as improving the Home Office’s “adults at risk” policy.

Brook House immigration detention centre
‘The inquriy into mistreatment at Brook House should mark a crucial turning point for the notorious immigration detention centre.’ Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

My inspections, in 2021 and 2022, found that flaws in the “adults at risk” process to protect vulnerable people in detention have not been rectified – and the implementation of recommendations from prior reviews is proceeding at a glacial pace. While the findings in my reports – like those of the Brook House inquiry – are worrying in themselves, perhaps even more concerning is my conclusion that the Home Office does not have the will to face up to the challenges.

The Home Office’s responses to my reports have been characterised by defensiveness and excuses rather than a commitment to improvement and positive change, and I’ve encountered significant pushback from senior leaders within immigration enforcement. The pushback is propelled by an unevidenced focus on asylum seekers “gaming the system”, and widespread scepticism. Rather than maintaining a sharp, clear-eyed focus on protecting the vulnerable, the department has been fixated on a narrative of abuse of the system by detainees and their legal advisers.

In total, the ICIBI inspections have produced 26 recommendations that were either fully or (more often) partially accepted, and subdivided into 51 points to better track them. Despite escapes, self-harm and deaths over the intervening period, the Home Office believes its work is complete on just nine of these points.

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 told him that the system – specifically the mechanism through which medical staff at immigration removal centres can bring vulnerability concerns to the attention of Home Office officials effectively – was not working. 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.

The response? My discussion with Jenrick was quickly followed by notification from the home secretary, Suella Braverman, that she was terminating the commission for an annual ICIBI inspection.

UK immigration minister, Robert Jenrick
‘I told the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, that the system wasn’t working.’ Photograph: James Manning/PA

Arguably, the timing couldn’t be worse, with a significant increase in the use of immigration detention to be expected as a result of the Illegal Migration Act. It’s particularly concerning that increasing numbers of vulnerable individuals are likely to be entering into a severely broken system.

It doesn’t need to be like this. As a brigadier and head of the Royal Military Police at the heart of the Afghanistan campaign, I was involved for a number of years in the assurance of the British army’s detention of suspected insurgents. While the comparison is far from precise – immigration detainees are held at the administrative convenience of the state rather than in connection with any sort of criminal proceeding – the stakes were arguably higher.

Many of those detainees were suspected of killing comrades I served alongside, and some were subsequently convicted and sentenced. Some of the detainees rioted and seriously injured some of my soldiers, almost murdering one. 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 towards individuals whose alleged transgression was to be in the country without proper documentation.

Senior management at immigration enforcement and at the top of the Home Office must enforce high standards for contractors, provide robust oversight of the facilities being operated in their name, and be more receptive to scrutiny and to independent voices. What’s needed now is strong leadership from both ministers and officials to prioritise the welfare of those in detention – and to get a grip on the environment that led to the abuses at Brook House. Both must understand that a policy of expanding the use of immigration detention requires more attention to, and a greater focus on, vulnerability.

Perhaps the director general of immigration and enforcement (designate), Bas Javid, – the brother of the former home secretary who, back in 2018, recognised that this difficult area of our immigration system would benefit from greater openness and scrutiny – will enforce higher standards for contractors. Maybe the Brook House inquiry report will be a turning point for change. Let’s hope.

  • David Neal is the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration

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