The Home Office is keeping torture victims in detention at Europe’s largest immigration removal centre despite accepting clear evidence of their vulnerability, prison inspectors say.
An official inspection report into Harmondsworth immigration removal centre, near Heathrow, published on Tuesday says that despite accepting evidence of torture in nine out of 10 sample cases, the Home Office continued to detain all but one of the people involved.
The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, says that some of the 537 detainees held in Harmondsworth at the time of the inspection last October had been in detention for too long, with 23 held for more than a year pending their removal. One man had been held for more than four and a half years.
The chief inspector also highlights concerns about aspects of the security regime at the privately run immigration removal centre that he says would be out of place in a prison. Inspectors found detainees once again routinely being handcuffed when attending outside appointments, after revealing in 2013 that a terminally ill 84-year-old Canadian man had been kept in handcuffs as he died in hospital.
Clarke says many areas of the detention centre run by Mitie were dirty, bedbugs were endemic, and some areas had infestations of mice. “The centre had failed to progress significantly since our last visit in 2015,” he says. “For the third consecutive inspection, we found considerable failings in the areas of safety and respect.
“Detainees, many identified as vulnerable, were not being adequately safeguarded. Some were held for unacceptably long periods. Mental health needs were often not met. Detainees were subject to some disproportionate security restrictions and living conditions were below decent standards. It is time for the Home Office and contractors to think again about how to ensure that more substantial progress is made by the time we return.”
The disclosure that more than 20 men have been held at Harmondsworth for more than a year will fuel the political and parliamentary campaign for a time limit to be set on the length of time that a detainee can be held pending their removal. The chief inspector repeats his endorsement of that demand in the report.
Clarke also renews his call for section 35 reports, which examine whether a detainee’s health is likely to be injuriously affected by detention, including if they may have been the victim of torture, to be full professional assessments.
“When a doctor declares a detainee unfit for detention, the detainee should be released unless there are exceptional circumstances, documented on file and explained in writing to the detainee, their legal representatives and the doctor,” he says.
He adds that too many section 35 reports provide insufficient detail and fail to comment on post-traumatic stress disorder or how continued detention has affected the health of those concerned.
“In our sample of 10 reports, the Home Office found evidence of torture in nine reports but maintained detention of all but one of the men involved, despite this clear evidence of vulnerability,” he says.
A Home Office spokesperson said the detention and removal of those who had no lawful basis to stay in the UK were essential parts of effective immigration controls. “When people are detained, it is for the minimum time possible, and detention is reviewed on a regular basis. The detainee’s welfare remains of the utmost importance throughout.”
The Home Office welcomed the inspectors’ positive remarks on welfare services, faith provision, generally adequate healthcare provision and positive engagement with third-sector groups who support detainees. “However, elements of this report make for difficult reading and we are committed to a programme of transformation,” it said.