UKBA’s short term holding facilities – an inspector reports

Eaton House short term holding facility, Hounslow, West London

In January, HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a review of conditions in UKBA short-term holding facilities (STHFs) between 2004 and 2010. These facilities usually hold people who are awaiting deportation or being investigated by immigration officers following arrival.

Drawing on 81 reports published over the six-year period, the Inspectorate notes a general improvement in the physical environment of STHFs and the management and care of detainees (p. 6). 

However, the report also points to ongoing problems, noting in particular the holding together of unrelated men, women and children, a lack of information for detainees in their own languages, and a lack of staff awareness of their responsibilities regarding children.

Failure to hold men and women separately

The majority of STHFs failed to separate unrelated men, women and children. In one incident at Gatwick South in 2009, a woman was held overnight in the same room as a male detainee whose language she did not speak. Women’s sleeping areas were not always sufficiently separated from men’s areas. Half of the facilities inspected did not have single-sex toilets, and in several cases, toilets were ‘poorly screened’ (p. 20).


The detention of children, including unaccompanied children, remained widespread throughout the period. Children could be held for long periods. In 2007, a child was kept in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 holding room for 28 hours without access to a bed, fresh air or washing facilities. While child-protection training for staff had been in place since November 2010, staff were not always aware of the child protection policy, or how to raise concerns about children’s treatment, and not all UKBA staff in contact with children undergo enhanced CRB checks.

Length and conditions of stay

The report found that people were regularly held for more than 12, and sometimes more than 24, hours in rooms without adequate sleeping or washing facilities. It mentions two occasions on which pregnant women were held for 19+ hours in rooms at Heathrow Terminal 4 without anything comfortable to rest or lie on (p. 19).  In general, facilities were not suitable for people with disabilities, and the inspectors noted ‘some very poor practice’ in relation to disabilities (p. 24).

Use of force

The report noted that detention staff rarely used force on detainees. However, in many facilities, when control and restraint techniques were used, the recipient was not routinely referred to a medical practitioner afterwards. Use-of-force incidents were not always properly documented, with some facilities failing to record incidences at all (p. 14).

Moving to and from facilities

The report was concerned about the ongoing use of handcuffs on people being escorted to and from detention where there was no obvious need. In one case, a woman was handcuffed on the way to detention in the presence of her young children (p.12).

Though extreme examples became rarer over the course of the period under review, detainees were frequently moved around the detention estate unnecessarily, causing distress and disruption to contact with family and solicitors. In one case noted in 2010, a detainee was held in seven places of detention in five months, ‘travelling between Torquay police station and Dungavel immigration removal centre [in Scotland] for no obvious reason’ (p. 13). In some cases, failure to document each of the different places of detention may have led to people being kept over the 7-day limit for short-term detention.

Communication and access to information

The report noted the ‘sensitive and respectful attitude’ of staff towards detainees in ‘almost all’ the facilities inspected. However, it named Heathrow airport as a site of ‘particularly poor’ (p. 9) staff attitudes and behaviour in 2007, though this was judged to have mostly improved by 2010.

Limited communication was an ongoing issue in STHFs, with a ‘lack of positive engagement’ with detainees found in many facilities (p. 21). Staff failure to make full use of telephone interpreting was a recurring theme. At Lunar House in Croydon in 2009, for instance, the telephone interpreting service had never been used, ‘despite certain need’, and staff were largely unaware of the service (p. 23).

Though there were improvements over the period, the report found that the ‘general lack of communication with detainees through an interpreter’ undermined staff attempts to ‘manage removal or transfer respectfully’, and that detainees being moved would often be unsure where they were being taken (p. 27). ‘Very few’ facilities gave detainees written reasons for continued detention or information about where they were going next, unless that was a removal centre (p. 11), in which case basic information was given.

Although access to legal information improved, detainees were frequently unaware of their legal rights or of how to access legal information, including about the rights to appeal a refusal of entry and to apply for bail. Documents giving reasons for detention were in English only.

Many facilities did not have provision for receiving incoming phonecalls, and some did not allow detainees to use their mobile phones. Many did not allow people to contact their solicitor free of charge, and few ensured that people could contact solicitors and/or family before release, with not all able to ensure that people could contact family and solicitors even with details of removal. Only one facility offered internet access.

Other concerns

Detainees who did not have their belongings with them were not usually able to regain access to them. More broadly, the great majority of STHFs did not have clear procedures for enabling detainees to manage their affairs before removal.

The individual reports of inspections of Short Term Holding Facilities are here.

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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