Chief Inspector David Bolt says he is ‘disappointed’ at ministers’ lack of action to improve controversial policy

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent


Efforts by the Home Office to ensure vulnerable people are not detained in removal centres is “undoubtedly too slow”, the government’s immigration watchdog has said.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) said he was “disappointed” at the department’s lack of action to improve a policy that is designed to reduce the number of “at risk” people in detention, but has been widely criticised for failing to do so.

The long-awaited report, which the Home Office received last July but was not published until Wednesday — a delay that has attracted criticism — was commissioned by then-home secretary Sajid Javid in 2018 to examine “whether and how the Adults at Risk (AAR) policy is making a difference”.

The policy was introduced in 2016 in response to a damning review into the UK’s immigration detention system by former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw that found too many vulnerable people were being placed in removal centres to the detriment of their own health.

Charities and immigration lawyers have long warned that the policy appears to have led to more vulnerable people being detained and for longer periods of time, contrary to the stated intention of the government.

The ICIBI’s newly published report states that there is “a lot more that the Home Office can and should do” to make each component of the AAR process more efficient and effective, adding that ”for those detained, and for the many stakeholders, the pace of progress is undoubtedly too slow”.

Chief inspector David Bolt raiseed the alarm over the fact that under the policy, the person tasked with assessing the suitability of individuals for detention — known as the ‘detention gatekeeper’ — does not have direct contact with the person, instead having to rely on forms completed by various referring units.

This detention gatekeeper does not have professional medical knowledge, and therefore has to resort to Internet searches to try to understand the significance of medication found with the person being referred — which Mr Bolt said meant “hidden” disabilities could go undiscovered.

In March last year, the Home Affairs Select Committee called for “a thorough, face-to-face pre-detention screening process to facilitate the disclosure of vulnerability”, but no such process has been created.

Commenting on his findings, Mr Bolt said: “Having waited many months for the Home Office’s response to my first annual review of the operation of the AAR policy, I am sure that, like me, immigration detainees and those who fear they may in future be detained, along with the large body of interested stakeholders, will be disappointed with what the Home Office appears willing or feels able to do to improve how this is working.

“I was hoping that the Home Office could move at pace and implement the recommendations relating specifically to the Adults at Risk process by 31 March 2020. The proposed timescales for those improvements the Home Office now says it is making are therefore also disappointing.”

Concerns over the policy have come into sharper focus since the Home Office said on 20 March that all immigration detainees found to have underlying medical conditions that increase risk of severe illness on contracting Covid-19 would lead to them being released.

Medical Justice, a charity supporting unwell detainees, said it had clients who were still detained five weeks later despite having those underlying medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension.

The charity, which has successfully litigated twice on the definition of torture used in AAR, said the policy was “riddled with systemic issues” and served to “prop up a detention regime that inflicts severe harm on torture victims and other vulnerable detainees”.

A Medical Justice spokesperson added: “Right now the Home Office continue to rely on this flawed policy in assessing detainees for release, which means our clients who suffer from Covid-19 co-morbidities, such as asthma and tuberculosis, continue to be detained despite the increased risk of severe illness.

“There have already been three confirmed cases in immigration removal centres. If Covid-19 continues spreading, immigration removal centres will act as ‘epidemiological pumps’, with staff serving as conduits between the centre and the wider community.

“The Home Office stubbornly refuses to learn the lessons of the Windrush scandal, placing enforcement over protection.”