MPs challenge Home Office on coronavirus in detention sites

PEERS and MPs from five different parties have challenged the Home Office to come clean on coronavirus and the use of dentention centres amidst growing concern.

Hundreds of people are still being held in immigration detention centres with shared dining and washing facilities, despite the pandemic.

Most of those taken to such centres have committed no criminal offence and many are taken into custody before reaching the end of their legal options.

Some are torture survivors and asylum seekers, others have established families in the UK, and many go on to secure long-term residency in the UK with the help of lawyers and MPs.

More than 700 people have been released in recent weeks as international flights became impossible and it would have been unlawful to hold them longer.

While three Covid-19 cases in detention have been confirmed, it is thought that “very limited testing” means the true figure “may be much higher”.

An all-party group of parliamentarians – including members of Labour, the LibDems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru – says all those currently held in centres like Dungavel in South Lanarkshire must be released on public health grounds.

And, in a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, the 16 signatories – including several Scottish politicians – raise serious concerns about levels of secrecy in the department.

Calling for officials to reveal the number of people still held, the number of coronavirus cases amongst this group as well as testing levels and more, the letter states that the Home Office is “slow” to respond to questions – if it answers them at all.

The letter, written by Glasgow Central MP Alison Thewliss as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention, says this “transparency” problem is “long-running” and in “stark contrast” to the Ministry of Justice, which provides daily updates on issues related to England’s prison population.

Previous letters written on March 25 and April 9 were only answered after The National highlighted the lack of response to MP questions.

Commenting, Thewliss said: “It’s been a pretty bad few weeks for the Home Office – even by their own standards – and we as a group remain deeply concerned that the department is continuing to put detainees at risk by holding them unnecessarily immigration removal centres.

“We already know that a number of people have tested positive for COVID-19 within the detention estate, and the fact that the Home Office is continuing to transfer detainees, and insisting on keeping people in situations where they can’t socially distance, shows a complete disregard for the health and wellbeing of those detained, and the public at large.

“We remain particularly alarmed at the train of events that led to the Home Office at last responding to the group’s previous correspondence on this matter. Indeed, it would seem that they only care to respond once matters appear in the press. This is no way to run a department, and speaks to a complete lack of openness.

“The Home Secretary must seriously consider the important points raised in this correspondence, and she should look to do it with a little more urgency than has been the case so far.”

The Home Office has said it is taking precautions against the spread of Covid-19 and the “vast majority of those in detention at this time” are foreign national offenders, adding: “It is only right that we continue to protect the public from dangerous criminals.”

The department says detention decisions “are made on a case-by-case basis and as circumstances change and cases are reviewed, release on immigration bail may become the most appropriate option”.


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