Concern About the Independent Monitoring Board at Oakington Immigration Removal Centre


Wednesday, May 27th, 2009. 5:37pm

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.

There are further absurdities included in the feedback which I have addressed in detail on my website.

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.

7 comments/updates on “Concern About the Independent Monitoring Board at Oakington Immigration Removal Centre

  1. Richard Article author

    I have just watched the deabate in the House of Commons on Illegal Immigrants from the 18th of May 2009.

    Conservative Andrew Selous asked:

    Many of my constituents want to know the reason for the huge delays in the Home Office, which lead to the failure to remove illegal immigrants, who then acquire the right to stay in this country. The figures show that the number of removals fell in the last quarter of 2008 and was lower than in 2007. Why was that?

    The Government denied there was a problem.

    I have been told that Oakington IRC specifically will be debated in the Commons on the 8th of June. I believe effective Independent Monitoring Boards ought be informing the debate, but are not.

  2. Richard Article author

    Having received an initial response to the FOI request mentioned in the article I have today (12th of July 2009) written to the minister responsible for appointments to the Independent Monitoring Boards at detention centres, Mr Woolas.

    I made some suggestions for improving the process of appointment including speeding up the process and including two rather than just one independent members on the interview panel. I said:

    A major problem appears to be the influence of current IMB members on the appointments process. If you have a failing IMB it is not likely to improve if existing members are able to resist the appointment of those likely to pursue change and improvement.

    I also questioned if it was necessary for independent members to be IMB members at all.

    Having now seen the briefing which was given to Mr Woolas when he considered, and rejected, my appointment I drew his attention to the fact it stated that the IMB board at Oakington had three vacancies and a target strength of twelve members as of March 2009. However in the 2008 IMB report, covering January to December 2008 states the board was down to seven members, with only six of them working. I have made a freedom of information request the response to which appears to indicate there were no appointments in 2008 or to June 2009. I suggested those, and other, kinds of errors (or omissions if somehow they are factually correct but the full picture is missing) ought ring alarm bells.

    I also drew his attention to further omissions saying:

    The pen picture you had of me was in my view highly misleading and inaccurate and key elements were omitted. You were told of my strong criticisms of the length of time it had taken to place the 2005 annual report on the IMB website and that I was dismissive of the chair’s explanations. You were not however told that the chair’s “explanation” was simply to say that it was not important that the IMB’s reports be made available to the public in a timely manner. I believe there’s little point in the IMB doing its work if it doesn’t communicate what it is doing. I understood and accepted the point made that the report had been sent to ministers, but that did not answer my concern. Given the extra background the impression given changes significantly.

    On a similar point, your briefing said I was “openly dismissive of the two members of the board who showed [me] around the centre”, but failed to tell you anything about the substance of my criticism. While I was being shown round the board members (and I) spoke to detainees, some of whom raised concerns that I felt needed looking into. I asked what was going to be done to follow up, but was told that the answer was nothing; on the grounds it was not a “formal rota-visit”. I am sure it was right to highlight this “jobsworth” attitude and the fact it shocked and appalled me when asked about my visit. One of those I met admitted a board member had attended the centre during an incident only to drive away again having been told by the police all is under control; that’s not showing the degree of inquisitiveness and persistence I would expect from members of an independent monitoring board.

    I have previously commented on those elements which I was made aware of in the feedback I was provided with following the process; such as the ludicrous suggestion that I said I would “not be bound be bound by the Centre rules if [I] felt they were at odds with [my] principles.” I would fully support not appointing someone who said they would not be bound by the centres rules. I certainly made no such statement. What I did say is that I would treat any training offered to IMB members with an appriopriate degree of cynicism. This followed the description of completely ludicrous “human rights” training which members of the IMB had described to me when I had been invited to visit the centre (going so far as to suggest those detained ought to have the “human right” to take their own lives). I argued this was inappropriate in relation to 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”.

    Your briefing stated: “The panel was also very concerned that he stated he had bought[sic] a camera phone into the centre twice and had not been challenged; to give the impression that this was to uncover what he believed to be lax security arrangements, and was triumphant in his findings.” I did draw attention to the fact that security appeared to be primarily theatre, and noted the fact that those entering the centre were allowed to keep their mobile phones with them, even if they had cameras. I do not believe I took my own phone beyond the board room, and certainly did not use it in the centre [in the presence of detainees], as might be inferred from the panel’s comments. Those fleeing persecution need to feel safe and secure, some would have legitimate concerns about being photographed and people finding out where they were. It is very important that the detention centre rules are followed. I would have thought ensuring that was the case would be a key role of the IMB. I made very clear my primary reason for bringing up this, and other points, was to urge action on them even if I was not appointed.

  3. Richard Article author

    Not the reply I had expected from Mr Woolas’s official @parliament.uk email address; he’s joined Margaret Becket, Patrick Cormack and a handful of other MPs who don’t accept emails!

    Thank you for sending an email to Phil Woolas, Member of Parliament for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

    Due to the volume of email we are receiving, we can no longer accept casework electronicially. Please write to Phil at:

    Lord Chambers
    11 Church Lane
    Oldham
    OL1 3AN

    If your query is urgent, please telephone our constituency office on 0161 624 4248.

    If your correspondence relates to the Home Office, please forward your correspondence to:

    Home Office
    Direct Communications Unit
    2 Marsham Street
    London
    SW1P 4DF

    With all best wishes and many thanks for your understanding in this matter.

    Office of Phil Woolas MP
    Oldham East and Saddleworth

    I will be sending my email via the Home Office.

  4. Richard Article author

    Mr Woolas has replied:

    Dear Richard

    Thank you very much for your message which I will read with close
    interest.

    Phil

    So it appears that despite the automated response he does get the emails! I much prefer the short, personal response, apparantly from the man himself rather than a formal reply that doesn’t add anything further.

  5. Peter Messinger

    Dear Richard
    I’ve read with interest. I’m due an interview this coming week. My walk-about some weeks ago was with 2 board members who were assigned for my introduction wherein I was pleased to observe and see an active role by both of the members in listening actively and following up later, before I left the prison.
    Clearly not all local IMB’s operate as efficiently as desired wherin I’d have thought that an effective supervision mechanism would be enacted, by an outside/third party. I will follow your communications with interest and no doubt you will see your commitment rewarded. would have beenbut the reporting process up and down as well as a

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve just come across a submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee from an assistant chaplain at Oakington Immigration Removal Centre; I was particularly shocked by the following sections;

    6. Dawn raids and arrests of individuals and families, from the community where they may have lived for years, cause much distress. People are not treated with adequate respect. Six or seven people (up to ten) arrive at their doors to enforce their removal from their homes—they are given about ten minutes to prepare themselves and gather posessions. They arrive at Oakington very frightened, without most of their possessions, and shocked at being behind barbed wire fences, having committed no crime. A few weeks ago a middle-aged woman was brought in with her son and 18-year-old daughter. She was so shocked at being handcuffed for the journey that she developed a heart condition which necessitated her admission to hospital. Her daughter was bewildered and frightened, and did not understand what was happening.

    7. Detainees are often not able to retrieve their possessions before they are deported if they are arrested in this way. Possessions often include important documents, family heirlooms, money and valuable equipment as well as clothes and other precious articles. We gather that these are often disposed of, sold or stolen. Bank accounts are left unsorted when people are deported. We consider that the Immigration Service is responsible for detainees’ possessions. We try to retrieve and return the possessions of failed asylum seekers when we can, but can only do this for a few.

    The separation of individuals from their possessions is the kind of thing the Independent Monitoring Board could have brought to the attention of Ministers and the public. I think difficulty accessing legal advice and inaccurate decisions would also have been a reasonable thing for the IMB to look into, though the members, and chair, I saw thought that was outside the scope of their remit. The assistant chaplain noted:

    10. It is increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to get proper legal representation, especially if they have no money. If they wish to apply for a judicial review they are often told they must pay (eg £1,000). The removal of one tier of appeal has made appeals more difficult for them—presumably the object of the changes.

    11. Decision-making by the IND is often inaccurate, perhaps because of the inexperience of the staff, and reviews of the political situation in the countries to which people may be returned are too infrequent—recently it was said to take place every six months. It is vital to have up-to-date information when considering whether return is safe—examples are Niger, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Iraq.

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