In 2011 Medical Justice established a project to provide support and assistance to detainees making complaints against the Home Office and its contractors. This report is based on our experience of these 31 complaints made by 28 clients in detention. The complaints ranged from serious misconduct, particularly injuries sustained during attempts to transfer the detained person or remove them from the UK, as well as inadequate health care, frequent cancellation of hospital appointments, use of handcuffs and the presence of guards in medical consultations. Other complaints included verbal abuse, including racial and sexual language.

The findings were that the complaints system in detention had significant practical flaws: complaints forms were difficult to access, detention staff lacked training about complaints procedures and there was a lack of information about the complaints process provided to detainees. The conduct of investigations were inadequate: time scales for replies to complainants were not met, investigations were frequently inadequate and partial, biased towards the Home Office’s contractor, even when there was evidence to the contrary. Almost half the complaints required escalation to the Ombudsmen. The report identified difficulties caused by the use of subcontracting and the complexity of identifying the correct avenue for a complaint, and a lack of oversight and co-ordination by the Home Office.

The report also drew attention to the fact that similar findings about the inadequacy of the complaints system had been made by the Complaints Audit Committee which had responsibility for annual reports and systemic consideration until it was disbanded by the Home Office. The Committee’s last report in 2008 had assessed 83% of complaints investigations as inadequate. Concerns about the complaints system had also been raised by the IMB and HMIP.

The report also documented the reluctance of detainees to make complaints and the fear that complaining would adversely affect their treatment in detention or their immigration case. Practical difficulties with the system also included the use of information provided in a complaint to undermine an immigration case, difficulties with accessing evidence to support the complaint and inadequate CCTV recording of use of force.

Overall Medical Justice considered that the lack of a robust complaints system could allow some abuses to continue unchallenged, with a failure for the Home Office to learn from mistakes or improve.

A Medical Justice client spoke of his experience of the complaints system

“I was beaten by the guards during deportation attempts in June 2010 to an extent that one of them bit my leg. After this assault, my arm was in plaster for 11 weeks because I had resisted removal attempts. I had been detained for nearly 10 months and the experience during that time is unexplainable to anyone who has never been detained.

I made complaints to all the complaints units after my assault, but all of them were dismissed as I had suspected, because there isn’t any ‘fair and independent’ complaints unit. Moreover it is still the same company responsible for my grief at the time, whom I had to complain to.

In the response of the complaints I had made, I was made to believe that the guards were within their realm of their duty and it was my fault that they had to beat me up. This made me fear the worst, as I had been made to believe that I had proved to be the trouble maker, and they were going to treat me like wise.

The Home Office says there is independence in their complaints investigations against itself and its contractors. But to me it proved to protect its employees and its contractors. I feared making any complaints, or voicing anything against the guards and other detention staff because it was for my benefit to lie low and not seen as a trouble maker, this was for my good, (or so we/I was made to believe).

The detention guards’ treatment towards me and other detainees, made it clear that we had no say. You are shown that you are worthless, you are not a human being anymore. I was made feel like they can stamp on me or spit at me, and had no option than to submit to anything they subjected me to. Making a complaint feels pointless as you won’t get any form of justice. You are just isolating yourself, putting yourself at risk of bad treatment. You have the fear of deportation coming sooner as you show yourself to be a trouble maker.

The Home Office were only forced to respond to my complaints seriously when I was lucky enough to get a good solicitor. Eventually the Home Office apologised for detaining me unlawfully and paid compensation. After I was released I was granted refugee status. Most detainees in my position never got any justice.”