Prisons inspector Nick Hardwick says ‘objectionable practice’ by escort staff at Gatwick airport should cease immediately
The chief inspector of prisons has condemned the immigration authorities for “a distressing and inhumane practice” of taking detainees to the airport as “reserves” for others being deported.
Nick Hardwick says the “objectionable practice” by overseas escort staff at the G4S-run Tinsley House removal centre at Gatwick airport should stop immediately.
He also discloses that a “children’s unit” is being refurbished and expanded at Tinsley House to be used to detain up to eight families with children.
Hardwick says it “sits uneasily” with the government’s commitment to end child detention for immigration purposes.
The chief inspector says that the latest inspection in May found the Gatwick removal centre had improved considerably from a previous visit when conditions were “unacceptable” and when the centre was judged to have “slipped off” the private security company’s radar.
But the inspectors were alarmed to discover that a system of “reserves” for deportations was in operation.
“More detainees were escorted to the airport than there were available seats, to replace detainees who might be granted a last-minute judicial review or suffer illness,” said Hardwick.
“Detainees were not told if they were a reserve. Consequently, some detainees, after preparing to return to their country of origin and experiencing associated distress, were returned to detention from the airport. Staff said that some detainees were returned to a different immigration removal centre and expressed concern about the impact of this on them.”
The practice was defended by the UK Border Agency. A spokesman said: “Preparing more foreign nationals for removal than there is space for makes best use of taxpayers’ money.
“It means that if a last minute legal challenge is launched that stops us from removing someone on a particular flight, then another detainee is able to take their place.”
But Hardwick makes clear he regards it is as “an objectionable and distressing practice which should cease”.
He also raises concerns about the children’s unit, which was being refurbished when the inspectors visited and was due to reopen shortly.
“It was anticipated that children would normally be detained for less than 72 hours, but they could be held for up to a week with ministerial authority,” says the inspection report.
“There was no documented plans for the unit to show how it would be run and no admission criteria.
“An experienced childcare professional had been appointed to oversee the new facility.”
The inspectors were told that two types of family might be held at Tinsley House: those detained from aircraft and awaiting a flight back to their home countries, and families judged “unsuitable” for the new pre-departure accommodation in a former special needs school in the village of Pease Pottage near Gatwick.
“These plans to hold children sit uneasily with the government’s commitment to end child detention for immigration purposes and inspectors will return to report on them once they open,” promises the report published on Tuesday 26 July.
A UKBA spokesman confirmed that the Tinsley House family unit is to be used for families intercepted at the border and “in rare cases” for “criminal and other high-risk families who cannot be safely” held in the new pre-departure accommodation.