Stephanie Harrison KC leading Gordon Lee, Kirsten Heaven, Una Morris, Alex Schymyck and Louise Hooper, of the Garden Court Chambers Inquests and Inquiries Team represented former detainees, whistleblower and Medical Justice, instructed by Duncan Lewis and Bhatt Murphy.
Today the Brook House Inquiry (BHI) has published its report on its investigation into allegations that people held in immigration detention were subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment following undercover footage as broadcasted by the BBC in 2017.
Key findings of the BHI Report (the Report)
The BHI Inquiry has exposed the inexcusable and unconscionable dehumanising abuse of vulnerable people held in immigration detention by the Home Office. The Inquiry has found the safeguarding system in detention to be “dysfunctional”, resulting in a failure to protect detained people as intended. Vulnerable people were exposed to the risk of mistreatment and were subjected to actual harm; there were 19 incidents of credible breaches of Article 3 of the ECHR, which prohibits torture, inhuman and degrading treatment within a 5 month period.
The “wholesale failure” of the detention safeguards was found likely to have caused actual harm to detained people. As a result, people were found to have been “allowed to deteriorate” in their mental and physical health. Such failures were found to be interlinked with the inappropriate use of segregation and a quick resort to the use of force to manage incidents of self-harm and mental health crises. Healthcare failures put vulnerable people at risk of deteriorating in their health, and of instances of mistreatment. These systemic problems in the adequacy of safeguards have not evolved and remain in place today.
Healthcare staff were found to not understand their safeguarding obligations. There was a tendency to view detained persons as “wilfully disobedient and obstructive instead of countenancing the idea that behaviour may be manifestation of mental anguish or ill health”. Specific findings were made in relation to the acts and omissions of individuals, including some who are still in post who were described as ‘unapologetic’ and ‘intransigent’. The Inquiry has stated that it will provide a copy of the report to the General Medical Council, indicating the severity of such findings.
A “toxic culture” prevailed at Brook House, fuelled by the “prisonisation” of the centre. Brook House was found to be a “breeding ground for racist views” with a routine use of racial stereotyping, abusive and derogatory language by custodial staff. The Chair described this as a “culture of dehumanisation of detained people”.
The Chair criticised how force was used unnecessarily, inappropriately and excessively in widespread cases. Amongst the concerning practices were the use of force on detained people who were mentally or physically unwell, and sometimes used as a way to manage symptoms of mental illness. Unauthorised techniques were being used, including a dangerous technique that had previously led to a death by asphyxiation. Approved techniques were being used incompetently in a way that became dangerous and increased the risk of injury. It has gone without proper scrutiny until the Inquiry, because of a “culture of silence” amongst officers. Body-worn cameras not turned on without credible explanation as to why.
The Inquiry unequivocally finds the crucial safeguarding responsibility lies with the Home Office, yet that there were a “comprehensive range of failings” spanning detention safeguards, healthcare, the use of force, segregation and the management of a toxic culture. Further responsibility lay with the various contractors:
- G4S, who were the contractor responsible for the operation of Brook House, failed to comply with their contractual obligations, relevant rules and guidance, at the management and corporate level, not just the individual level.
- Such failings were found to continue today, despite Serco taking over the contract. The Chair raises concern about several individuals remain in post and more senior roles, casting doubt on how far cultural changes have occurred.
- The Practice Plus Group, the healthcare provider at a number of IRCs, were found to have made some improvements but not the fundamental changes to the operation of safeguards necessary to protect vulnerable people from suffering likely or actual harm. PPG’s failure to correct the deficiencies in the failure is a “further indication of an abdication of corporate responsibility”.
The Inquiry chair made 33 recommendations for ‘necessary’ changes at Brook House and immigration detention more widely, the vast majority of which are directed to the Home Office or the government more generally. These included:
- A 28-day time limit on immigration detention given the negative impact of detention on detained person’s health and wellbeing.
- A fundamental review of the safeguarding framework under Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules 2001. The Inquiry found a wholesale failure of the safeguard in 2017 and no significant improvement since.
- A comprehensive review of the use of force.
- Training for healthcare staff on their safeguarding role including in relation to the use of force, Rule 34 and Rule 35.
- Review of range of policies including on segregation, food & fluid refusals.
The inquiry report notes that many of the findings and recommendations ‘closely mirror’ those from previously investigations and reviews and calls for a ‘culture of change’: ‘Lessons must be learned’. It finds that the Home Office had failed to act on ‘serious issues and concerns’ previously, making ‘inadequate excuses’ (including on the complexity of detention and polarised debate on migration) on these fronts ‘where basic issues of human rights and welfare are at issue’.
This comes at a time when the government are planning a large expansion in immigration detention. The Chair notes that ‘any expansion or other change [in immigration detention] should be considered in the context of learning lessons from past failures’.
Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice said;
The evidence shows that the Home Office has presided over the inhuman and degrading treatment of vulnerable detained people in its care.
This comes as no surprise to us or the Home Office – Medical Justice has been presenting evidence of abuse to the Home Office for the last 18 years.
At every turn the Home Office has reacted with indifference and intransigence.
It’s a travesty that it’s taken a public inquiry for detained people’s harrowing testimony to be taken seriously. They have at last been vindicated.
Urgent action is needed ; the evidence could not be clearer – the harm and horror of detention is being experience right now in IRCs across the UK.
Despite knowing the harm it causes, the government plans a massive expansion of detention – willfully allowing the inevitable harm to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children it aims to indefinitely detain.
This country must take a stand – if we fail to halt this abuse it means we have completely lost our way.
If not now - with this inquiry’s findings- then when ?
Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers, Stephanie Harrison KC, lead counsel in the Inquiry states;
“I would like to pay tribute to the courage of all those who survived immigration detention at Brook House in 2017 and came forward to share their appalling experiences of a facility that has been comprehensively and categorically exposed as a place in which violence, mistreatment, racism and abuse are integral to its operation and institutional culture.
The Inquiry found extensive evidence of a system that is desensitised to human suffering and a culture marked by dehumanisation, impunity and disrespect for human dignity. The 5 month period covered by the Inquiry was but a snapshot of the incidence of inhuman and degrading treatment of individuals, widespread unlawful misuse of force, segregation and abuse of detained people particularly those suffering from mental illness as consequences of Home Office policy priorities, rhetoric and the systemic failure to ensure implementation of detention safeguards and a humane environment.
The Inquiry is clear that lessons have yet to be learnt, the conditions for continued mistreatment and abuse are all in still in place across the detention estate and the Chair was careful to highlight the Government’s change in policy of expanding rather than reducing immigration detention.
The Illegal Migration Act 2023 will also shortly remove key legal safeguards and extend the use of detention for children and pregnant women. Any responsible government reading this report would act urgently to end indefinite detention, urgently introduce a statutory time limit of 28 days and end immigration detention for all vulnerable people including those with a serious mental illness. The Rule of law requires nothing less.”
The legal teams acting on behalf of individual detained persons and whistleblower Reverend Nathan Ward were Stephanie Harrison KC, Gordon Lee, Una Morris, Alex Schymyck and Louise Hooper of the Garden Court Inquiries Team, with Alex Goodman of Landmark Chambers and Zainul Jafferji of Clarendon Park Chambers, instructed by Lewis Kett, Toufique Hossain, Nick Hughes, Sophie Lucas, Jamie Bell of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, and Lottie Hume and Charlotte McLean, formerly of Duncan Lewis Solicitors.
Stephanie Harrison KC and Kirsten Heaven of Garden Court Chambers acted for individuals and Medical Justice, with Shu Shin Luh and Laura Profumo of Doughty Street, instructed by Hamish Arnott of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors.
Una Morris of Garden Court Chambers acted for individuals and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, with Nick Armstrong and Jesse Nicholls of Matrix Chambers, instructed by Joanna Thompson and Mark Hylands of Deighton Pierce Glynn.
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