Baroness O’Loan’s report to the UK Border Agency uncovers casual brutality and callous neglect in detention centres.
O’Loan’s report in March 2010 was commissioned following allegations of systemic abuse of detainees by detention centre and immigration escort staff made in the 2008 report, Outsourcing Abuse by Medical Justice, National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns and solicitors Birnberg Peirce. She details serious injuries to detainees during attempts to remove them from the UK included a broken finger, a dislocated knee and a punctured lung. Force was frequently resorted to as a first rather than last resort, with no consideration given to its necessity or proportionality. Handcuffs appear to be routinely used, and some deportees were handcuffed behind their back for long journeys; some were pulled by the handcuffs (in breach of a ban on this practice); frequently handcuffs were too tight, sometimes causing lacerations to the wrists. A woman’s handcuffs were not removed when she went to the toilet and she had to be ‘assisted’; another’s handcuffs stayed on during hospital examination of her uterus. A third woman soiled herself after escorts refused to allow her to use the toilet. A fourth, a very young woman, was carried almost naked through a detention centre handcuffed behind her back, and the blanket covering her fell off.
These examples call into question the conclusion of the report that abuse in the detention estate is not ‘systemic’. Baroness O’Loan seems to equate ‘systemic’ with ‘systematic’. Her reasons for rejecting the allegation of Medical Justice that abuse is ‘systemic’ had to do with the fact that only a handful of detention or escort staff featured in more than one complaint, and that there was no pattern of abuse. But the meaning of ‘systemic’ is ‘system-wide’. O’Loan’s conclusions suggest that abuse, including the casual use of force and lack of respect for detainees’ dignity, appears to be system-wide, occurring throughout the immigration detention estate.
A failure of justice
The lack of respect shown to detainees is evidenced not only by the manifold instances of violent treatment, but also by the failure to carry out any, or any adequate, investigation into detainees’ complaints. In nearly two-thirds of the cases reviewed (18 out of 29), an investigation was non-existent or inadequate. This applied even where there was serious injury. ‘Use of force’ forms were frequently not properly completed, leaving no record of the circumstances or justification for the force used. Sometimes there was no investigation at all. When complaints were investigated, there were no proper procedures. Completely untrained people would be detailed to investigate complaints. Papers regularly went missing. Files were stored in a location contaminated by rats, so that they had to be destroyed. CCTV footage was routinely destroyed after a month; case files containing relevant papers were frequently not retained following deportation, or following transfer of responsibility for detention centres from one commercial contractor to another. If the complainant indicated they might pursue a criminal complaint or a civil action for assault, any internal investigation was frozen. Too often, complaints were held ‘unsubstantiated’ when they should not have been.
This failure of investigation impacts on the efficacy of O’Loan’s own review. Too often she concludes that the absence of CCTV footage, papers, medical records or other evidence makes further investigation of the allegations impossible, so that she cannot substantiate the allegation under review. Regrettably, this proper reticence is somewhat one-sided, in that she shows a rather disconcerting acceptance of escorts’ descriptions of detainees as ‘disruptive and violent’ even where there is no independent corroboration. Similarly, her observation that ‘the use of force is not a common occurrence in the detention estate’ appears to derive from an unsourced statistic from Harmondsworth which is unlikely to have been the result of interviews with detainees. Too often, too, she concludes that injuries caused by restraint, such as abrasions to wrists, or cuts to detainees’ faces caused by restraint on the floor, or to hands and feet caused by doors being slammed on them, were the natural and inevitable consequences of lawful force. These deficiencies however lend more force to her criticisms of those responsible for detainees.
Although she refers to ‘significant improvement in the processes’ since the transfer of responsibility for investigation to UKBA’s Professional Standards Unit in April 2008, her recommendations indicate that there is still a long way to go. These include:
- A review of the training provided for the use of force, to ensure that officers are trained to consider constantly the legality, necessity and proportionality of that use of force;
- A requirement that when force is used, officers justify that use of force by reference to its necessity, proportionality and legality;
- Clear guidance on the use of handcuffs, including consideration of how toileting and hygiene are provided for, and the circumstances when those receiving medical treatment may be handcuffed;
- Re-issue of the instructions which ban the pulling of people by their handcuffs;
- In all circumstances in which force is used, every care should be taken to protect the privacy and dignity of the individual being restrained;
- UKBA should set standards for the investigation of all complaints of misconduct by immigration removal centres and escort staff;
- UKBA should produce and make available to detainees a leaflet about complaints procedures;
- CCTV footage should be kept for at least six months where injury requiring hospitalisation is sustained;
- UKBA should ‘monitor service delivery’ of staff who have had three complaints against them in a year.
Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, slammed the report as ‘a cover-up’. ‘Baroness O’ Loan has cleverly played with language to claim there is no evidence of “systematic” abuse’, she said. ‘But this is because the incidents of abuse were so widespread that it is not possible to discern a system or a pattern’. The MP continued, ‘This investigation is totally inadequate. It shows a complete failure to properly investigate any of the allegations, just as they failed to properly investigate the original allegations made by asylum seekers.’
The Medical Justice network welcomed the report’s publication, pointing out that ‘There are many alarming findings in relation to both the complaints process, the retention of paperwork by UKBA and the application of the use of force in immigration detention’. The report makes twenty-two recommendations for change. In the light of this it is alarming that Lin Homer, the Chief Executive of UKBA, can imply in her foreword that our motivation in reporting on allegations of abuse was to “damage the reputation of our contractors”, as distinct from highlighting alarming trends.’
Meanwhile, the network has documented at least fifteen further recent allegations of assault on detainees, and complaints of inadequate healthcare are running at eight a month.
Download a copy of Baroness O’Loan’s Report to the United Kingdom Border Agency on ‘Outsourcing Abuse’ (pdf file, 592kb)
Download a copy of: Outsourcing Abuse (pdf file, 2mb)