On 5 November 2019 the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Priti Patel, announced to Parliament that the Prisons and Probations Ombudsman (PPO) investigation of Brook House immigration removal centre (IRC), set up to investigate the abuses revealed in the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets’, has been converted to a statutory public inquiry in accordance with the Inquiries Act 2005.
This announcement following the successful judicial review challenge earlier this year brought on behalf of two former detainees MA and BB, who featured prominently in the BBC documentary. MA is represented by Stephanie Harrison QC of Garden Court Chambers and Alex Goodman of Landmark Chambers, instructed by Lewis Kett and Nicholas Hughes of Duncan Lewis Solicitors’ Public Law team. BB is represented by Joanna Thomson and Mark Hylands of Deighton Pierce Glynn instructing barristers Nick Armstrong of Matrix Chambers and Jesse Nicholls of Doughty Street.
The documentary followed an undercover detention officer secretly filming inside Brook House on behalf of the BBC. The footage revealed repeated, routine and appalling mistreatment and abuse including racial abuse of detainees by officers. Most shockingly, it showed one officer strangling MA and threatening to put him “to sleep” before detention and healthcare staff conspired to cover it up.
In the judgment handed down in June of this year, Mrs Justice May held that there was “a real risk amounting to an overwhelming probability that former G4S staff will not attend voluntarily to give evidence”. The PPO needed the power to compel witness, to ensure the officers were called to give evidence so they could explain “why and how they came to do it so openly, and so regularly, without complaint or criticism…”. She also held that it was right to “afford the abused detainee an opportunity to see and confront their abuser on equal terms, as a means of restoring dignity and respect to the person from whom it has been so wholly stripped away.”
Mrs Justice May also ruled that MA and BB were entitled to publicly-funded lawyers:
“When dignity and humanity has been stripped, one purpose of an effective investigation must be to restore what has been taken away through identifying and confronting those responsible, so far as it is possible… How is that to be done in any meaningful way here unless MA and BB, non-lawyers where English is not their first language, are enabled through representation to meet their (alleged) abusers on equal terms?”
The inquiry will be the first of its kind under the Inquiries Act 2005 into immigration detention in the UK. The inquiry, which will investigate alleged ‘systemic and institutional’ failures will have statutory powers to compel witnesses, to hold hearings in public, and to provide funding for legal representation for victims.