British exceptionalism lurks in the UK’s detention polices

BRITISH exceptionalism has become a buzzword in recent years, as a cause of Brexit for some academics and in the pages of the Telegraph as a justification for why Brexit will be a rip-roaring success. I confess I have some sympathy for the view that some who have spent their careers within the SW1 bubble have developed an over-entitled sense of history.

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First published in The National, 7 August 2019

Indeed, the entire narrative of the 'Mother of all Parliaments' carries with it the baggage that, without dear old Blighty, there would be no other parliamentary democracies on the planet, liberty would have died out centuries ago and all the world would be enslaved. This is, of course, laughable.

Having said that, there are some clear-cut cases of British exceptionalism, at least among our European neighbours. Indefinite detention of migrants is perhaps the most outrageous and disturbing of these. For all the outrage about the actions of Donald Trump and the USA’s immigration policies, here in the UK an asylum seeker can be locked up, without charge, for as long as the state decides.

This is wrong. No ifs, no buts.

Right now, the Home Office locks up nearly 25,000 people a year, including some of the most vulnerable people that ever come into contact with the British State. These include asylum seekers, pregnant women, and children.

The Home Office Annual Report and Accounts for 2017-18 recorded that detention cost the taxpayer was £108 million during that year, yet despite the ruinous impact on individuals and the high cost, the system remains in place.

No system is perfect but even if you accepted indefinite detention, the UK’s procedures are flawed.

The centres that the UK Government uses to detain migrants have been hit by a string of scandals and some have been closed in response, most recently Campsfield House in Oxfordshire.

Panorama reported on Brook House, above, near Gatwick Airport, after a whistleblower exposed the “culture of violence” in the institution.

Unfortunately, Scotland is still home to one such centre at Dungavel, a centre other SNP politicians and I have campaigned against for years. Only this May, BBC Scotland acquired Home Office data showing that nearly 40% of those detained there were classed as vulnerable. No other European Union country has a policy of indefinite detention. The UK alone pursues the most vulnerable in this way.

Recently, there has been some good news within this bleak story.

Overall, the UK has reduced the number of migrants detained by 10% this year, and mercifully the number of child detainees has fallen dramatically.

In another positive step, the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the UK Parliament produced a cross-party report condemning indefinite detention for the ruinous impact it has on individuals.

It recommended a maximum detention of 28 days.

I know from colleagues across Europe that none of this is simple and rarely are there elegant solutions to complicated problems. However, this is not complex. Irrespective of the wider issues it is simply wrong to detain someone indefinitely without any trial and no other EU country acts in this way to run their migration policies.

Arguably, the policy actually makes the system less efficient because the lack of a deadline means that the Home Office has no motivation to complete cases quickly.

So far so good... Can we safely assume there are battles to come but the tide is turning as politicians from across the political divide come together? Well maybe not.

Amid the noise from the arrival of PM Johnson into Number 10, the departure of immigration secretary Caroline Nokes was perhaps not front-page news. In part because few will shed a tear for her departure (though a few may chuckle that she found out via Twitter).

Unfortunately, she left as she had conducted her entire time in office – doggedly ignoring the human cost of her department’s actions.

On her final day in post she rejected the committee’s request for a time limit on detention on the grounds it could “constrain the ability to maintain balanced and effective immigration control”.

No other country in the EU needs this power to maintain immigration control and there are better ways to run immigration and protect the most vulnerable. Irrespective of Brexit the UK Government can and must do better. Will it?

All eyes are now on Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, and Nokes’s replacement Seema Kennedy.

I confess I watch more in hope than expectation.

Obviously, an independent Scotland will need an immigration, asylum and nationality policy and it will need to have hard choices too, but surely putting compassion and humanity at the start of it wouldn’t be a bad place to start, and we could hardly design a worse system than the UK operates now.