The new Home Secretary needs to embrace detention reform

Sajid Javid has taken over at the Home Office following Amber Rudd’s resignation over her handling of the Windrush scandal.

Changing the Home Secretary does not address the systemic problems with the UK’s immigration system in general or its detention system in particular, but it does present an opportunity to break with the callous approach that has characterised government policy in recent years.

The treatment of the Windrush generation has brought the entire ‘hostile environment’ into focus. This set of policies is designed to make life as difficult as possible for undocumented migrants. It turns teachers, employers and landlords into de facto immigration enforcement officers, and utilises the threat of arbitrary and punitive detention and deportation. It aims to make life impossible for migrants who don’t meet a high threshold of documentary evidence. Liberty have detailed how the hostile environment operates in various crucial areas of our society.

Javid has made strong statements about the Windrush cases – “I thought that could be my mum … my dad … my uncle … it could be me” – but he has a record of backing the policies that brought those cases about. He voted for the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. He staunchly defended the infamous Go Home vansHe voted against banning the detention for pregnant women under immigration powers.

But the fact that a Home Secretary has resigned provides an opportunity to challenge and change that approach. Javid has said that he wants “an immigration policy that is fair, it treats people with respect, and with decency”. In practice, this will require him to dismantle the hostile environment and to address one of the most brutal aspects of the immigration system: detention.

The UK remains the only country in Europe that detains migrants indefinitely, and it operates one of the continent’s largest detention estates, detaining around 30,000 people each year. People are deprived of their liberty, without the authority of a judge and with no idea when they will be released, inflicting unnecessary misery.

The new Home Secretary should take the opportunity to save his department hundreds of millions of pounds and stop this heartless approach. He should introduce a 28-day time limit on immigration detention as a matter of urgency, and drastically reduce the size of the detention estate over time.

This view is shared by the Bar Council, the British Medical Association and major human rights organisations Amnesty and Liberty. It is now policy of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP. It has been recommended by the Home Office-commissioned report from Stephen Shaw and by the Prison Inspectorate. Introducing a 28-day time limit would bring Javid in line with public and professional opinion.

The new Home Secretary should take the opportunity to transform the culture of the Home Office. He should commit to developing and implementing community-based alternatives to detention. These alternatives should be based on cooperation, engagement and case management, rather than coercion, enforcement and incarceration. He should end the detention of vulnerable people, including victims of torture and trafficking.

The Windrush scandal has exposed the inevitable consequences of the hostile environment; it is no surprise that an inhumane approach to migration produces inhumane results. Javid must ensure that his new department no longer ‘loses sight of the individual’. But he can only do that by dismantling the hostile environment and ending indefinite detention.