Lords defeat the Government again over detention

The House of Lords has for the second time defeated the Government over detention reform amendments. On Tuesday night, the Lords voted by a handsome margin for further limitations to the Home Office’s power to detain.

The vote is the second time that the Lords have imposed changes on the Immigration Bill. Alongside the relocation of 3,000 child refugees from Europe, in March the Lords voted for automatic judicial oversight of detention after 28 days, and an absolute end to the detention of pregnant women.

These amendments were overturned in the Commons on Monday after the Government made concessions to avoid a possible backbench rebellion. Minister for Immigration James Brokenshire refused to stop detaining pregnant women altogether, but agreed to impose a time limit of 72 hours, extendable to a week with ministerial approval.

The Government also agreed for the first time to an element of automatic judicial oversight of detention. However, the Government amendment was a much watered down version of the Lords’ proposals. The Lords had voted for an automatic judicial hearing whenever the Home Office seeks to detain a migrant for more than 28 days. This would create a presumption that, unless there are exceptional circumstances, 28 days should usually be long enough for a migrant to be removed or released.

The Government amendment, by contrast, merely provides for a bail hearing to be arranged if a migrant spends six months in detention without making a bail application themselves. It no longer tells the Home Office what maximum length of detention Parliament considers should be the norm. It would benefit only tiny numbers, since the vast majority of migrants covered by the amendment make bail applications themselves.

In reality, an automatic bail hearing after six months would probably only be needed for people who are so vulnerable or mentally ill that they are unable to instruct a solicitor or apply for bail. These are the people whose treatment the Home Secretary’s own inquiry, led by Stephen Shaw, denounced as ‘an affront to civilised values’. If the Home Office’s reforms to the identification of vulnerable people are effective, they should not be detained. Where they are still detained, it is indefensible to leave them in detention for as long as six months without judicial oversight.

The Lords on Tuesday agreed that the Government has not gone far enough. Lord Ramsbotham’s original 28 days amendment was voted through by 271 votes to 206. Likewise, an amendment by Baroness Lister, creating important safeguards around the 72 hours detention of pregnant women, was carried.

The Bill now returns to the Commons for a further vote, probably after the elections on 5 May. The Government will be under substantial pressure to compromise by offering a meaningful level of judicial oversight. MPs will have another chance to vote for Lord Ramsbotham’s amendment imposing automatic judicial oversight after 28 days.

Ministers have conceded the principle that detention must, eventually, be approved by a court. Despite the condemnations of Stephen Shaw and the Parliamentary Inquiry, they still refuse to legislate for a significant change.

Now is the time to write to your MP and urge them to support the Ramsbotham amendment on judicial oversight.