A terrible day for the UK Border Agency, as Peers describe its culture of disbelief, its abuse of torture victims, the denial of legal representation, dawn raids on pregnant mothers, the perils of outsourcing, ‘loutish and aggressive’ behaviour, deaths by G4S, and that’s not all . . .
In a bruising House of Lords debate on the Border Agency yesterday, former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, criticised the Crown Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute security company G4S over the death of asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga.
Crossbencher David Ramsbotham, who is conducting an independent inquiry into the use of restraint, said: “In the face of all the evidence that we have gathered, quite apart from all the other evidence that was available, I find that CPS decision, at kindest, perverse. Passengers reported hearing Mr Mubenga cry out that he could not breathe and that the guards were killing him. There had been Home Office warnings to G4S in 2006 about the dangers of using positional asphyxia. There had been stringent criticisms by the coroner in the case of Gareth Myatt, a 15 year-old who died in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre following the use of similar procedures for restraint by G4S guards. He, too, had called out that he could not breathe before he died.”
Ramsbotham called on the government to confirm that an Inquest “will be conducted as soon as possible by an experienced coroner, and that public funding will be made available to ensure full support for Mr Mubenga’s family”.
Reliance, the company that replaced G4S as the Border Agency’s escort contractor after Jimmy Mubenga’s death, “admits that its staff are loutish and aggressive and lack respect for minorities and women”, said Lord Avebury during a rigorous exposé of the Border Agency and its commercial contractors.
Liberal Democrat Eric Avebury, who had tabled the debate, touched upon the “disgraceful” and “deplorable” short-term holding facilities for children at Heathrow, the impact of budget cuts on already understaffed asylum casework (“inevitably less time will be available for individual decisions and more applicants will be wrongly refused”) and the injustices inflicted upon people making family visit applications.
He highlighted the waste of hundreds of millions of pounds on detaining migrants for years without cause, to the detriment of their mental and physical health, and noted the recent Medical Justice report on the detention of torture victims whose effects included “attempted suicide, self-harm and hunger strikes”.
About the Border Agency’s default response, to dismiss the evidence as “anecdotal and based on a small number of cases”, he said: “Obviously a small charity does not have the resources to carry out an investigation of every one of the thousands of asylum seekers detained every year to see whether each one has made a torture claim and been ignored . . . In the face of such an abysmal record of failure extending over many years, this survey by Medical Justice is a wake-up call.”
Avebury concluded: “Sacking nearly a quarter of the staff, taking away migrants’ appeal rights, refusing applications without just cause, detaining people who are never going to be deported and ignoring torture claims are not the route to sorting out the enormous problems that beset the agency. The cuts should be stopped before things get even worse and the Home Office should address the many recommendations made by the UNHCR, the chief inspector, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the many expert NGOs whose wisdom is freely available.”
Lord Dholakia (Navnit Dholakia, Liberal Democrat) said the objective of excluding those who are ineligible was being taken to extremes. “When we add to this the insatiable appetite by politicians to play the numbers game, is it any wonder that a culture develops over time where administrators are expected to deliver results which often lack fairness and justice in the process?”
Contrary to Border Agency assurances, said the Bishop of Newcastle, “last week another case of a dawn raid being undertaken by UKBA officers was reported. A family of four, including children aged 10 and two, together with their mother who was 31 weeks pregnant, were forcibly removed from their home. The result was that the pregnant mother was hospitalised while the husband and children were removed to the Cedars detention centre in Sussex. That is not an isolated case. In April, another family was subjected to a dawn raid, resulting in another pregnant mother being restrained by four officials and the family’s removal to a detention centre.”
Meanwhile, African clergy invited to conferences in Britain were being turned away, “simply because their personal income was low”, the Bishop said. “I long to see real evidence of the more compassionate and fair agency that the director claimed was the case a couple of months ago. It certainly does not look like it at present.”
Might a Conservative peer come to the government’s rescue? Up stood Lord Marlesford (Mark Schreiber): “The problem with the staff of the border agency is not just that they are of indifferent calibre; they have been shown to be seriously and systemically corrupt,” he said. “Some 30 Home Office staff members have received heavy prison sentences for misconduct in public office. The great majority were from the border agency.”
Marlesford warned: “there must be no question of hiving off this crucial role to the private sector; we have already seen enough disasters on that side already.”
Baroness Williams (Shirley Williams, Liberal Democrat) was “very cautious indeed about outsourcing”, and especially about G4S, whose chief executive, Nick Buckles, the Home Affairs Committee found, “has no idea of what is going on and has shown an extraordinary ability to deny that he knows anything about it . . .one has to ask whether such an organisation should be responsible for such sensitive issues as the deportation, or, for that matter, the admission, of people from other countries, many of whom have very profound histories of suffering and torture.”
Williams urged consideration of an amnesty “for those who have lived in this country for five years or more with no criminal record of any kind,” an end to the practice of returning young people soon after their eighteenth birthday to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, she noted the Border Agency’s “complete failure to recognise the special position of women in a world where, tragically, rape has become a weapon of war” and called the lack of decent and legal means of support to asylum seekers “an invitation for people to be degraded and for others to exploit them and make money out of them”.
Retired psychiatrist, Lord Alderdice (Liberal Democrat John Alderdice) said the Border Agency “should not be a front line as though it were the Maginot line.” Having one daughter-in-law who is Brazilian and another who is German, Alderdice had seen how “sometimes capable, qualified, professional young women—lawyers and so on—are left in tears. That shows us just how abusive the whole culture has been.” One of the most senior people involved with the UK Border Agency had told him: “It’s the culture of the agency. The whole approach within it is abusive and it’s all about keeping people out.” He went on: “People become like those with whom they live and work. The UK Border Agency has not just employed G4S; it has become like G4S and it has the same challenge.”
Shirley Williams urged the minister, Lord Henley (Oliver Eden), to ensure that all UKBA staff are asked to read the Lords debate. Henley said he could not ensure it, but he would send the transcript to chief executive, Rob Whiteman. Avebury nailed him down: “I am sure that it will not be difficult for the agency to find a means of disseminating the Hansard report of the debate to the whole staff,” he said.
Those decent people within the Home Office should seize the moment.
Read Clare Sambrook’s latest dossier on the UK Border Agency: The UK Border Agency’s long, punitive campaign against children (helped by G4S and Serco)
All OurKingdom’s reporting on G4S is collected here.