Looking back over the Coalition Government, one of our great successes is putting an end to the routine detention of children for immigration purposes. In 2009, 1,119 children were locked up in immigration centres, nearly 500 of them were under five years of age.
Not only have we ended this practice, but in the Immigration Act we made sure that if any future government wants to undo our reforms, they’ll have to do it the hard way by passing an Act of Parliament.
But the issue of immigration detention doesn’t and shouldn’t stop there.
The UK is an outlier in the EU as the only country that doesn’t have a time limit on how long someone can be detained under immigration powers. Ireland has a time limit of 21 days, France 45 days, Belgium two months and Spain 60 days. Even Russia has a time limit, albeit of two years.
Yet in the UK people can be, and are, detained indefinitely. What’s more, the decision to detain is taken by a Home Office official and there is no automatic right to challenge that decision. If an individual in detention wants to challenge their detention, they have to instigate that themselves.
Last spring, Lib Dem Conference endorsed the policy paper Making Migration Work for Britain, which includes policies to end indefinite detention and implement community-based alternatives. Over the last six months I have been serving on a cross-party panel of MPs and Peers, chaired by our own Sarah Teather, who have held an inquiry into the future of immigration detention in the UK.
We took evidence from, among many others, psychologists who told us about the mental health impact that a lack a time limit has; from the Chief Inspector of Prisons who told us that the lack of a time limit leads to poor caseworking by Home Office officials; and from detainees who told us that whereas prisoners count their days down, in immigration detention people count their days up.
We are publishing our report today and our key recommendation is that the next government should introduced a time limit of 28 days. To do this, lessons should be learnt from countries such as Sweden who detain far few people and for far less time by actively engaging with people in the community early on in the immigration process, rather than relying on expensive enforcement processes.
Not only are community-based alternatives more humane, they are also considerably cheaper. The majority of detainees who are held for longer than 3 months end up not being removed from the country and independent research by Matrix Evidence concluded that £75 million per year could be saved if asylum seekers who cannot be deported were released in a timely manner.
Lib Dems were at the forefront of the battle to prevent the last Labour Government from detaining terror suspects for 90 days without charge. We should now be at the forefront of ending the illiberal practice of detaining people for immigration purposes for indefinite periods. It’s time for a time limit.
* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15