Baroness Sally Hamwee writes…Another win for humanitarians in the Lords

I bumped into the Lords Home Office minister immediately after one of the Government’s socking defeats on the Trade Union Bill, consoling himself that losing by 17 in the vote on an Immigration Bill amendment time-limiting immigration detention was almost a victory.

But the Government lost – we won!  The amendment was led by crossbencher Lord Ramsbotham, who was Chief Inspector of Prisons and so knows whereof he speaks, supported by the Labour and the Liberal Democrat front benches: 63% of our peers voted compared with 46% of Labour’s.  Of course it may not stick.  The Bill will go back to the Commons where the Government could ping it straight back to the Lords (parliamentary ping-pong), or propose a compromise or changes ranging from the substantive to the technical (or accept it unchanged – but that almost never happens), but it cannot be ignored.

There is much to be said about immigration detention and the conditions in immigration removal centres.  I will simply note the paradox which causes detainees so much despair: You have no hope, as you don’t know when you might be released, and at the same time you have no certainty as you might in fact be released tomorrow.

The amendment is not a straight 28 day limit, because we were concerned to counter criticisms that there will always have to be exceptions.  So we allowed for exceptions “on the basis that the circumstances of the case require extended detention”, but crucially the extension would be a matter for a judge.  The Home Secretary would have to apply for it, not simply make an executive decision.

The Government had sought to head us off by agreeing to issue guidance as to “whether a person would be particularly vulnerable to harm if [she] were to be detained”.  “Particularly” vulnerable?  Where is our humanity?  And guidance?  We already have a Rule “to ensure that particularly vulnerable detainees are brought to the attention of those with direct responsibility for authorising …. detention”.  The Rule doesn’t work – those of us who worked on the inquiry led by former Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather, heard the despair of doctors struggling to implement it – so what prospect is there that guidance will improve things?

After I had started to write this piece, I received an email from someone who runs an immigrants’ support organisation:  “I shared the news this morning with many of my members, asylum seekers who had been detained and who spoke out against detention and I wish you could see their joy. Their dignity has been restored. Thank you for that.”

* Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and the Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities.

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  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '16 - 3:12pm

    Why don’t we stuff the Lords with 700 far leftists? This is the logic of saying “left good, right bad and the Lords is as legitimate as the Commons”.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '16 - 3:19pm

    And if people think that the “sweet spot of morality” is the centre-left then what gives you lot the right to be in the Lords anyway?

    It’s ridiculous, campaign for House of Lords reform for years and then suddenly think it’s great because the centre-left has a majority in it.

    “humanitarians” – so what am I? Inhumane?

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '16 - 8:08pm

    Sorry, I don’t think I was being rational or considerate earlier. I didn’t quite understand what I was uncomfortable with, but I wasn’t comfortable.

    From a strategic point of view: if the public think Labour and the Lib Dems have a built in majority in one house then they are more likely to vote Conservative in the other. This is what has been happening in the US recently with the public voting Republican in the mid-terms, but Democrat at Presidential elections.

    I’d also be careful about using the word humanitarian. It’s a serious issue to override the elected house and it isn’t just as simple as humanitarians versus non-humanitarians. The reasons for the Peers’ votes should be explained with the seriousness that overriding the commons should be treated with. Even if at sometimes overriding the Commons is justifiable. Regards.

  • suzanne fletcher 18th Mar '16 - 10:44am

    note that winning the vote was only possible because of the support of cross benchers making the decision on how to vote based on how they weighed up the issues, but because of any party political influence.
    I am proud of how our Peers have been able to negotiate the tricky path through to deliver this vote.

  • suzanne fletcher 18th Mar '16 - 10:45am

    condensed view from Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary.
    We are proud of the determination, skill and humanity of our Lib Dem Peers for playing their part in this huge step in parliament recognising the disgrace of indefinite detention.
    The amendment proposes that a person may not be detained for a period longer than 28 days; or for periods of longer than 28 days in aggregate. This period of detention may be extended by the First-tier Tribunal if the Home Office apply for an extension on the basis that “exceptional circumstances of the case require extended detention”. This greatly increases judicial oversight of the process.
    Currently, the UK has no time-limit on detention: people can be detained indefinitely, for months and even years. Briefing papers on Indefinite Detention and its future are attached. It is Liberal Democrat policy to end indefinite detention for immigration purposes for all, and was one of the key points in our manifesto last year. We have worked with Detention Forum who has long called for increased judicial oversight of detention, and the introduction of a maximum 28-day time-limit on how long anyone can be detained.
    Whilst we are delighted at the progress made, and recognise that compromises had to be made for the Bill to have the support of others to enable it to be amended, we have grave concerns about the exceptions made. Those who have been in prison for more than 12 months and have served their sentence will not be included in this ending of indefinite detention and will probably remain detained for a long time. Another sentence should not be imposed on them “through the back door”. Once a sentence has been served there are no more grounds to detain someone who is not a British Citizen than there are for someone who is.
    We recognise that this victory in the House of Lords is no more than the first step; it will need to go to the House of Commons. We call on everyone to campaign and lobby for MPs to take forward the recommendations of The Shaw Report, commissioned by the Government, and the APPG on this very issue.

  • suzanne fletcher 18th Mar '16 - 10:45am

    The debate in Hansard can be read at, amendment 84. Good speeches were made and some extracts are:
    Roger Roberts said : “We are looking at people and at what they are like when they leave there. Will they feel that British justice was fair and that Britain was handling them in a fair way, or will they feel resentment? What we do not need in the world at the present time are people who are resentful and ready to act in a violent way. They should know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I would support a period of 28 days”
    Sally Hamwee said “ The then Chief Inspector of Prisons commented on how many of the detainees were released back into the community, which poses the question: if they are suitable to be released back into the community, why do they need to be detained in the first place?”

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