"The streets are not paved with gold". Never will the Home Secretary's declaration seem more appropriate than if you happen across an immigration removal centre (IRC). The barbed wire-topped fences, the private security guards, the 'yard', the human misery. Yet time and again we are assured in no uncertain terms that these centres are not prisons. How could they be? The inhabitants are not criminals.
The use of limitless immigration detention - unashamedly for administrative convenience - is one of the greatest stains on our country's human rights record in recent decades. Despite guidance stating that a person's removal from the UK must be considered 'imminent' to justify detention, many are locked up for months on end - some for years. Compare this to the situation of criminal suspects detained without charge who must be released after 14 days.
This afternoon MPs have an opportunity to expunge that stain when they debate an amendment that would inject some desperately needed common sense and compassion into the otherwise shameful Immigration Bill. Supported by Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens as well as two Conservative backbenchers, this amendment would place a 28-day limit on immigration detention. Liberty has campaigned against indefinite detention for many years and consensus on the need for a limit is growing both inside and outside of Parliament. Despite this, the Government remains bafflingly reluctant to act.
In March, a cross-party Inquiry comprising MPs and Peers - who, in their own words, "held very diverse views about the immigration system as a whole" - published a report recommending the next Government introduce a maximum time limit of 28 days on immigration detention. As panel member and Conservative MP David Burrowes said at the time: "The lack of a time limit is resulting in people being locked up for months and, in some cases, several years purely for administrative reasons. While there is a need to properly control our borders, people who arrive by fair means or foul must also be treated with dignity and respect throughout the process."
The reality of life in an IRC falls woefully short of the requirements of dignity and respect. In August, in a harrowing report into systemic failings at Yarl's Wood, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) added its voice to the chorus calling for an end to unlimited detention.
The inspection found the Centre failed to meet basic standards of safety and respect for detainees and that, since its last inspection, healthcare standards had deteriorated markedly. Yarl's Wood houses hundreds of women - including many with long-standing mental health issues, survivors of abuse and torture, pregnant women and mothers separated from young children. The majority of staff in contact roles were men, with male staff undertaking health assessments, male custody officers barging into bedrooms unannounced, men present during rub-down searches and male staff "inappropriately used to provide constant support for women in acute crisis".
On top of this, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons' August report on Yarl's Wood described "poor access to prescribed medication, a poor overall standard of care, a poor attitude from health care staff, a corrosive culture of disbelief, and a lack of support with emotional and mental health needs". Among the vulnerable detainees at Yarl's Wood in 2014 were nearly a hundred pregnant women.
The degradation, self-harm and trauma documented by HMIP are inexcusable - but they arise because the system itself is fundamentally inhumane. They are the result of the unlimited incarceration of vulnerable people for the convenience of the Home Office. Detention without limit is an invitation to ill-treatment and abuse.
If evidence of the dire human consequences of indefinite detention isn't enough to move a Government committed to making the UK a "hostile environment", surely proof that detention doesn't work should. Immigration detention is not an effective tool to facilitate the removal of irregular migrants and it is wildly expensive.
March's parliamentary inquiry report showed that, the longer a person is detained, the less likely it is their detention will end in removal. Of the 178 people detained for 12 months or more and released from detention in the year ending March 2015, only 38% were removed - 57% were ultimately released. In a 2012 examination of the economic case for detention, Matrix Chambers found that, over five years, the benefits of timely release of detainees - who would eventually have been freed anyway - exceed the cost of that timely release by £377.4million - £344.8million of that are savings due to reduced time in detention.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are currently 11 IRCs in the UK with a combined capacity of 4,000. Compare this to Sweden which receives double the number of asylum claims annually and manages with just the 255 places at its disposal. The UK is alone in the EU in having no form of time limit on detention.
Our streets are not paved with gold, that much is clear, but in the year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, can we continue to show such distain for the right to liberty? Detention without limit is a tragic and futile waste of human life. Today's amendment, which has Liberty's full support, is a chance to insert the basics of protection into this appalling and senseless system. Here's hoping principled parliamentarians from across the house take up the cause.Suggest a correction