Torture victims and suicidal people in immigration detention centres are not receiving adequate help because of unfounded suspicions from ministers and officials that they are cheating the system, the UK borders watchdog has found.
David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration (ICIBI), also questioned why Suella Braverman had ended annual investigations into the treatment of vulnerable adult detainees.
The report comes as the home secretary pledged an expanded use of detention centres amid concerns about where to hold thousands of people arriving the UK on small boats across the Channel.
In the third annual report into the “Adults at risk in immigration detention” policy, Neal examined why vulnerable detainees were not receiving help after reporting serious health problems.
Under rule 35, a report is supposed to be issued by the detention centre’s GP if a detainee has suicidal intentions, if there are suspicions they are the victim of torture, or if a detainee’s health may be “injuriously affected” by detention.
“The perception that the rule 35 process was being abused by detainees was common across teams in the three locations I inspected. I do not accept the limited evidence provided to support this assertion and there were few obvious activities under way to address this concern,” he said.
Neal said there had been “a significant increase” in rule 35 reports, resulting in considerable pressure on healthcare and Home Office systems. “This pressure had a negative impact on an already flawed rule 35 process notable for a lack of training for GPs, some poor-quality rule 35 reports, and a failure by detention engagement teams and rule 35 team managers to adequately review reports.”
Neal’s report, which is being published by the government seven weeks late, makes 10 recommendations.
In a joint article written for the Guardian with the former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw, Neal criticised Braverman for ending annual inspections into the treatment of vulnerable adults in immigration detention centres.
“It is disappointing that the current home secretary has now discontinued the standing commission for the independent chief inspector for borders and immigration to carry out these reviews each year,” he wrote. “It must be hoped that this decision does not reflect a sense of complacency or a loss of interest in these issues on the part of the Home Office.”
The article accused ministers of making “unevidenced” claims of abuse of the safeguarding system by asylum seekers. “Ministers and officials point to rising numbers of reports of torture and modern slavery referrals as evidence of abuse of the system, when these trends may well reflect the system working as it should, with safeguards available to those who need them.
“The contention that safeguards are being abused on a wide scale is unevidenced.”
Shaw has carried out two wide-ranging and highly critical reviews of immigration detention and made sweeping proposals for change that aimed to decrease the use of detention.
The government operates seven immigration detention centres and is planning to open another two, Campsfield House immigration removal centre in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, and Haslar centre in Gosport, Hampshire.
The Guardian recently quoted sources saying that Braverman was planning to drop recommendations from Wendy Williams’s Windrush review, which included giving the ICIBI greater independence from the Home Office over the timing and subjects of reports.
Since Neal took up the role in March 2021, only one of 23 ICIBI reports has been laid in parliament within the promised eight-week time frame.
Braverman is facing legal action after hundreds of people seeking asylum were illegally detained at immigration removal centres. They were moved on after disease and overcrowding became worse at Manston processing centre in the autumn.
During a home affairs committee session in November, Braverman and the Home Office permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, said the system for reporting modern slavery victims was being abused – but did not say how. The Office for Statistics Regulation said it had requested “specific evidence” to back their claims but none was provided.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with the ICIBI’s claims, which overlook the continued improvements in immigration detention.
“We take the welfare of detained individuals extremely seriously, treating all those in detention with dignity and respect. The report rightly notes the commitment and professionalism of Home Office teams who work to safeguard those in detention. But we know more needs to be done, which is why we have accepted the majority of the report’s recommendations.”
The spokesperson said the public expected the government to control the borders and remove people with no right to be in the UK.