A member of the British House of Lords yesterday said two Movement for Democratic Change activists who were returned to Zimbabwe because it was safe were tortured to death at the airport within a few hours of being returned by the United Kingdom.
Shirley Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby, did not name the two or when they were deported and tortured. She was contributing to the debate on the immigration bill and argued that Britain should not send back people to their countries if it was uncertain about their safety.
Baroness Williams said it was appalling that Britain detained people that were in the country unlawfully for an indefinite period costing the taxpayer millions.
“We pay something of the order of £70 million or £80 million a year to sustain a system that is uncivilised, brutal, expensive and unfair,” she said.
“I was closely associated with the attempt to support the famous MDC, the Movement for Democratic Change, in Zimbabwe—only to see, over my desperate protests, two people, including the youth officer of the MDC, returned to Zimbabwe on the grounds that they would be safe when they got there. They were both tortured to death in the airport within a few hours of being returned by us, the United Kingdom.”
Baroness Williams of Crosby (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, in moving Amendment 9, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who I think always gives this House the benefit of an extraordinarily frank, honest and honourable speech, to which we can all listen with great advantage to ourselves. I share with him his courteous recommendation of, and congratulations to, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and the noble Earl, Lord Atlee, because of their extraordinary willingness to discuss with us the issues that we raise. I will certainly echo that before I embark on speaking to my amendment.
I declare an interest as a patron of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, which commits itself to looking after those detained at that airport, by getting together a group of volunteers who make it their business to try to inform, calm and, for that matter, communicate with the large number of men and women there. I put on the record my extreme gratitude to them. They do it without being paid, they come from the local area and they are a fine example of the United Kingdom at its civic best.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is an exemplification of that famous proverb, “A gentle answer turns away wrath”. Indeed, when I hear the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, my wrath diminishes as I listen. However, I also have the unhappy, almost aching, feeling that there is quite a big gap between what the noble Lord says—undoubtedly with all sincerity—and what I actually encounter in the real world. While I was listening to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, there was a certain gap between the assurances given by the Minister—I am sure in all good faith—and the daily set of newspaper stories, over and over again, about the particular treatment of detainees, not least of course by well known private companies now responsible for running detention centres. It does not all quite add up.
I shall therefore restrict my remarks today to a factual account, as far as I possibly can—not eloquence, not rhetoric, but a factual account—of why I think that the present situation cannot be sustained. First, on the numbers, some 30,000 people are detained every year as a result of extant investigations, connected in some cases with faulty immigration rules, in some cases with documents and in some cases with what all of us would of course recognise as criminal offences: 30,000. If you then ask how many have been detained for a year or more, the answer is reassuring: as of the autumn of 2013, it is 92. However, what you do not know until you investigate very carefully is that there are another 950 who are also detained, not in detention centres but in prisons. For some reason I do not understand, people detained in prisons for a year or more are not listed in the Home Office’s own statistics. I am told that there is an anomaly; it reports only those detained in detention centres. The 982 figure is very different from 95, and that difference has not been explored.
Thirdly, let us ask how much that costs the British taxpayer. The answer is that the cost of a year’s detention for each detained person is £36,000. However, that is only the beginning. At present there is a plan to build, at The Verne in the Isle of Wight, a new detention centre that will cost an estimated £30 million. That is also a cost over and above the cost of running the detention estate. We are therefore looking, on some estimates, at a figure of somewhere between £75 million and £100 million a year for a detention centre about which we must at least ask whether it is necessary, essential and justified.
That leads one to turn to the issue of how other European countries treat their detainees. With the Republic of Ireland, we are the only European Union member state that has detention with unlimited length. In France, the length of detention is 45 days, and in Germany it is three months. Those are broadly in line with the average for all other European member states. I repeat: only the UK and the Republic of Ireland have unlimited detention without trial. I find that deeply troubling.
Many years ago, when I was a young mum, I went on holiday with my family to Romania, which was still under the undoubtedly iron hand of Nicolae Ceaucescu. I spoke to the hotel clerk, and I will never forget what he said when I handed over my British passport to him, which was, “Ah, mater liberorum”—mother of the free. I have never forgotten that. He had been exiled to the Romanian mountains by his Government and was forbidden to speak out or to get newspapers, but somewhere inside him was the sense of the beacon quality of our own country. I never forgot that. That is why today, when we debate something such as the unlimited detention of detainees, I have to ask myself whether the country that I love for its belief in freedom is still the same country.
I will go back to the facts again. I have talked about the detention estate, but I will take it one step further. In 2010, to its credit, the European Parliament approved a “return directive”. Under its provisions, any person detained without trial had to be returned after a length of time no greater than six months. If investigations were needed—for example, because somebody might be accused of some sort of criminal offence—there was an extension under the EU directive to 18 months in all. The total maximum, therefore, even if the allowance of extra time is granted, is 18 months—and normally it is six months. The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland both opted out of that directive on the grounds that it interfered with our autonomy and freedom to run our own justice system. Would that we had opted out on rather different grounds—but we opted out, so the directive does not apply to the United Kingdom.
What else can we say about what we might do? Through the Gatwick detention centre—and I am sure that this is also true of other Members of this House—I have encountered, over and over again, the tragic situation of many of those detained. I will give the House two examples. The first is the example of people who cannot be returned, such as all Somalis who fled this country from the destruction of their own, because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that to return them would be utterly unsafe. To our credit, we abide by that ruling and we do not forcibly return Somalis to what would almost certainly be a future of torture, if not death.
We have been much more sceptical about some other countries. I was closely associated with the attempt to support the famous MDC, the Movement for Democratic Change, in Zimbabwe—only to see, over my desperate protests, two people, including the youth officer of the MDC, returned to Zimbabwe on the grounds that they would be safe when they got there. They were both tortured to death in the airport within a few hours of being returned by us, the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord rightly said, that was under a different Government, but the arguments are the same regardless of party. So we cannot return some people; what we do is detain them—unlike the French who, if people cannot be returned, give them no more than 45 days in detention.
The second large group—and some of them will be familiar to noble Lords—are people who cannot be returned because they have no proper documentation and will therefore be rejected by the country to which they are returned. That undoubtedly presents the Home Office with considerable problems; I understand that. But the alternative to detention without limit in every other country in Europe, save the Republic of Ireland, is to investigate and review the case and decide whether people can be released and, if they cannot be released, to bring charges against them. Indeed, the striking fact about France—I take that as the closest example to us—is that more people have been voluntarily returned from France as a proportion of those detained than in the United Kingdom, by a very substantial margin. France has persuaded 81% of its detainees to return voluntarily—not at the end of a cosh, but voluntarily—to the countries from which they came, which in turn have been sussed out to make sure that they will not do damage to the returned deportees. What France does, we can do; there is no reason that we should not.
To conclude, we pay something of the order of £70 million or £80 million a year to sustain a system that is uncivilised, brutal, expensive and unfair. I plead with the House to consider very seriously whether we can go on supporting it and whether the time has not come for major reform of what I can describe only as a deplorable policy common to all parties in this House and to all of us, which we allow to continue year after year, even in the teeth of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which specifically begs the United Kingdom to look very closely at what it has done and consider whether a limit should not now be brought in.