Dozens of torture victims detained at Dungavel House in South Lanarkshire have been refused release despite doctors submitting reports to the Home Office expressing concern over their mental health.
A new report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) reveals that the Home Office overruled expert medical advice more than two thirds of the time, prompting one organisation to accuse the UK government of a “callous disregard” for traumatised people in its care.
A ‘Rule 35’ report was devised by the Home Office to protect vulnerable people in detention so that concerns raised by a doctor would likely result in a detainee with mental health issues and/or alleging torture being released.
Under ‘Rule 35’, doctors examine detainees and compile reports for the Home Office but there has been claims that civil servants are apparently disregarding these reports.
HMCIP’s report followed an unannounced inspection of Dungavel House in July this year, Scotland’s only immigration removal detention centre.
The report said that of 49 ‘Rule 35’ reports produced at the detention centre over the previous six months, only 13 people were released – which means 36 torture victims were kept imprisoned despite having suffered experiences that often lead to post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
The HMCIP report said: “Rule 35 reports contained clear judgements and over a quarter led to release, more than at other recent inspections. Nevertheless, in most of the cases we examined in detail, the Home Office replies accepted evidence of torture but did not consider this sufficient to justify release from detention.
“Doctors had submitted 49 Rule 35 reports in the previous six months. All but two related to torture and 27 per cent led to release, which was more than at other recent inspections. We examined a sample of 10 Rule 35 reports in detail. All contained clear judgements, although the reasoning for them was not always evident. The reports did not comment on the impact of continuing detention.”
“All the Home Office replies accepted evidence of torture, but only three of the 10 led to release.”
Detainees also said they did not feel physically unsafe in the centre, but feared removal and found it difficult to cope with the open-ended nature of detention. The UK can detain people indefinitely for immigration reasons with some held for several years.
Commenting on the report, Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said the figures on ‘Rule 35’ releases were a “shocking indictment” of the government’s “professed commitment” to keep vulnerable people out of immigration detention.
She added: “Not only is it grossly unjust that torture survivors are only identified after they have been locked up, but too many are not released even after independent evidence of their vulnerability is presented. The Home Office’s practice of repeated incarceration of vulnerable adults, despite medical evidence, shows a callous disregard for the safety of those in its care.
“At Freedom from Torture, we know that the psychological impact can be catastrophic for those living with trauma from past abuse. Rule 35 can work as a safeguard only if decision-makers implement it properly.”
The Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) said there was “no shortage of evidence about how damaging detention is to people’s mental health, especially the further harm it inflicts on people who have experienced torture”.
“We know that self harm, post traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts are all too common for people who have been tortured and who find themselves locked up in the UK for immigration purposes. The Home Office needs to answer to this and explain its decision making in these cases,” added SRC’s Pauline Diamond .
Kate Alexander, director of the charity, Scottish Detainee Visitors, said that organisations supporting people in detention have been raising concerns about ‘Rule 35’ for years.
“It’s a disgrace that despite medical evidence confirming torture, the Home Office continues to detain people, without time limit,”Alexander said. “As visitors to people in detention, we see the harm these decisions can cause.”
“In July the UK government published Stephen Shaw’s (a former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales) assessment of progress in implementing his 2016 report on the welfare of vulnerable people in detention.
“He repeated his concern that the ‘Rule 35’ process did not do what it was supposed to do and recommended a completely new process. This would include referral of cases to a new body, separate from the Home Office caseworker responsible for decisions about detention. The government should implement this recommendation immediately.”
It's a disgrace that despite medical evidence confirming torture, the Home Office continues to detain people, without time limit. Kate Alexander, Scottish Detainee Visitors
Labour MSP Pauline McNeill said: “I think the existence of the Rule 35 is an important provision but it is equally important that it is strictly adhered to if there is medical evidence of torture. If there is any suggestion that this is being ignored then it is deeply concerning.”
She added: “Those who have endured torture in countries they have come from should be handled with care and released to a more suitable environment.”
The Home Office said in response: “The dignity and welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance, and the latest HMCIP report on Dungavel observed that relationships between staff and detainees were excellent.
“However, we realise there is always room for improvement. That’s why we are creating a new committee at Dungavel to assess the needs of adults at risk at the centre to ensure that all vulnerable cases get the care and attention they need.
“Rule 35 reports are a valuable tool for assessing an individual’s potential vulnerability and informing decisions on continued detention. However, the submission of a Rule 35 report does not mean an individual will or should automatically be released.”
Dungavel House is run by a private company called GEO Group UK.
A spokesman for the company said: “HMCIP said there is a positive welfare-focused staff culture at Dungavel and that relationships between detainees and staff are excellent. Both HMCIP and The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland have acknowledged the good work by the mental health team and staff throughout the centre to provide a supportive environment.”
The Ferret revealed in 2016 that only 29 people out of 323 held in Dungavel between 2012 and 2015 were released following a ‘Rule 35’ report.
We also revealed that the Home Office had challenged nearly one out of every five reports compiled by doctors who are experts in torture and who work for Freedom from Torture, with the charity saying then that officials had been refusing to accept ‘Rule 35’ reports.
As a consequence, only 15 per cent of ‘Rule 35’ reports resulted in someone’s release in 2014. According to Freedom from Torture back then, government officials who were unqualified medically have been “pushing up the evidential bar” for people trying to prove they were tortured.