Just outside Cambridge over three hundred men are detained at the ex. RAF base at Oakington which is now an immigration removal centre. Those held include people waiting to be deported as well as those waiting for legal due-process to make decisions on their immigration status. Many have been released from prison to the centre. Occasionally students and tourists who have overstayed their visas end up in the centre, others are awaiting decisions on applications for asylum. I would like to see these deportations, and the legal process, speeded up enormously reducing the need for these centres. I do not think that holding people for extended periods in these centres is good for Britain or for the people being held.
Oakington immigration centre currently has five vacancies on its Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of twelve. The IMB is a group of local volunteers, appointed by a minister, who are given access to the centre and are required to hear complaints from detainees and report to Ministers about the operation of the institution. The IMB at Oakington has been seriously under-manned for a number of years, and I am concerned that those on the board are not sufficiently inquisitive, critical and effective. I enquired about becoming a member of the IMB in June 2005 but was rebuffed, apparently on the grounds the centre was shortly due to close. I inquired again when the centre was still open in late 2007 and following a visit to the centre I submitted an application in December 2007. On May the 1st 2008 I was interviewed, on the 27th of March 2009 I was informed my application had been rejected and on the 8th of May 2009 I was given feedback as to why.
Having almost half the positions on the IMB vacant must put a lot of pressure on those remaining who have to visit the institution regularly and ensure someone (preferably more than one person) is constantly available to attend the centre rapidly in case of an incident. The ineffectiveness of the IMB is in my view demonstrated by the damming review of Oakington IRC by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers who in 2008 wrote:
“Neither staff nor managers appeared to take an interest in the individual circumstances and concerns of detainees.
“For example, they appeared unaware of the fact that they had been holding a Chinese man for nearly two years.”
I feel an effective IMB would have detected both this, and other problems. Having met members of the IMB who feel their responsibilities don’t extend to crucial areas such as how long individuals have been detained and why there are delays I understand why they did not. They focus instead almost solely on matters such as the detainees food. I have been told that a current member of the IMB who had been called to the centre to monitor the response to an incident turned around and drove away again when she was told by police at the gate that all was all under-control. That in itself shows a lack of inquisitiveness and willingness to use the access granted to the centre. Those members of the IMB I met showed a lack of personal independence and a disconcerting willingness to accept training and indoctrination from the Home Office. There was also a “jobsworth” attitude, while I was being shown round a detainee approached the members of the IMB I was with to complain he had been unable to get an appointment with the Home Office monitor; I was shocked when afterwards the members of the IMB said they wouldn’t be recording or acting on this as they were not on a “formal rota visit”.
I think that the IMB ought be aiding the public to understand what is going on in these centres. UK citizens need to know what is being done their name by the UK state in these institutions.
Responding to my Feedback
I have written to the IMB secretariat and the IMB Chair at Oakington to say:
On the 8th May 2009 I received feedback on my 1 May 2008 interview for membership of the Independent Monitoring Board at Oakington Immigration Removal Centre. I was already aware that my application had been rejected by a minister. The feedback, which I suspect comprises the same information as the “pen picture” presented to the minister, makes clear why. It states that :
“The panel also noted your comment that you would not be bound by the Centre rules if you felt they were at odds with your principles.”
I did not make such at statement. I am, and was, aware that the centre rules are secondary legislation with the force of law. I have the utmost respect for UK law and do my very best to abide by it. I would like to request that, inline with principle 4 of Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 (Personal data shall be accurate), you record my view that this statement is inaccurate by filing this letter along with your record of my application.
I think it is entirely and obviously right that anyone who has stated they are not prepared to comply with the centre rules ought not be appointed to an IMB. I fully understand why a minister would, faced with such a statement, reject an application.
However I do not recall any discussion about when it would be appropriate to break the centre rules. There was a discussion about the conventions / declaration on human rights. Having been told by members of the IMB that their training promoted an extreme viewpoint that individuals have a human right to kill themselves should they decide to do so I argued this was inappropriate in an institution such as Oakington where I suicide prevention ought be, and in fact is, a priority. I stated both at the interview and in my application form that: “If appointed I would attempt, despite any training, to maintain a viewpoint of an interested, educated and caring member of the public”.
There are a wide range of circumstances where in order to preserve life or avoid serious injury it is necessary to break laws, for example driving through a red traffic light to make way for an ambulance or fire engine. It appears to me that to risk life to comply with traffic laws or detention centre rules would not only be wrong according to “my principles” but the European Convention on Human Rights which has been incorporated into UK law. If only those who are (or claim to be) prepared to follow petty rules at the expense of life are qualified for membership of Independent Monitoring Boards then that is a very worrying state of affairs.
In addition there are other inaccuracies in the feedback which I have received. It states: “when the Chair explained the reasons for the delay in the Board’s Annual Report being added to the IMB website, the panel considered that you had already decided on the reasons and were dismissive of the Chair’s explanation”. The Chair of the interview panel did not offer an explanation for the delay, what she did was argue it wasn’t important that the annual report was not made public in a timely manner; a point I disagreed with.
I am surprised that it appears the safeguard of having an external member of the interview panel does not appear to have worked in my case. I have made a public request using the whatdotheyknow.com website for the release of the “declaration of the independent panel member” and summaries sent to ministers relating to my interview and others. Guidance from the IMB secretariat suggests any “recommendation” to the minister ought be approved by the independent member. The independent member in my interview agreed to note my concern that the positions had not, in my view, been openly advertised [following my interview my suggestion was acted on and adverts appeared in the Cambridge News]
I sent a similar letter to the minister responsible for appointments to Independent Monitoring Boards, drawing attention to some of the points made at the beginning of this article. I also added:
I have managed to prompt Oakington’s IMB to openly advertise their positions in the local newspaper; I think it would be beneficial if all vacancies on IMBs were openly advertised via the imb.gov.uk website and other sites such as doit.org.uk . Wider advertisements would only be of value though if the interview and selection process is open, transparent and meritocratic. Open publication of the pen-pictures presented to ministers along with declarations by independent panel members providing an assurance they are accurate would in my view improve the system.