Heathrow Holding Facility – banging reports against a brick wall

The Independent Monitoring Board has published its report on the welfare of detainees held at Heathrow’s non-residential short-term holding facilities over the year to January 2011. During the period covered by the report, the facilities were run by private company G4S.

The report expresses exasperation over the failure to make changes recommended in previous reports – ‘Yet again we draw attention to the fact that men, women and children continue to be detained in unsuitable conditions’ (p. 10). The ‘regrettably degrading features’ still in evidence include a lack of proper sleeping and washing facilities, poor ventilation and temperature control, and the presence in one facility of strip lighting that cannot be dimmed at night (p. 4). The report remarks that poor conditions might perhaps be ‘tolerable’ if holding times were ‘very short’, but they are not (p. 10).

The report finds that people, including families and unaccompanied children, are still being kept in holding rooms in ‘unsuitable conditions’ (p. 6) for longer periods than the 18 hours (or 24 hours if authorised by the Secretary of State) that draft guidelines demand. G4S statistics quoted in the report suggest that over the year, 10.5% of those detained were held for more than 18 hours (p. 6).

Lack of progress

In its last two reports, the Board informed ministers that Heathrow needed a residential short-term holding facility in which those being detained for long periods could have the opportunity to sleep and wash.

Realising this was an expenditure ministers were unlikely to be willing to make in the near term, in its last report the Board suggested some interim solutions. These included adding an extension to one of the facilities with more comfortable seating, the creation of a family room, and the installation of showers in each of the holding rooms. None has been implemented, though some very preliminary proposals and applications for costings have been reported (p. 11).

The report concludes that the reasons for failure to act are mainly financial, and have partly to do with a ‘lack of muscle’ in the UKBA’s dealings with the port operator BAA (p. 10). The Board is concerned that the statutory basis for the relationship between UKBA and BAA may need revision to ‘ensure decency and promote [detainees’] welfare’ (p. 12), and has sought to discuss this with UKBA, with limited success.

Underuse of existing resources

Given the obstacles to improvements, the Board reiterates its point, made in a previous report, that better use should be made of existing overnight detention facilities for detainees otherwise faced with a night in a holding room.

However, allocation of beds in removal centres remains haphazard and limited (p. 13). In consequence, detainees, including families (including one overnight case of a family with a 10-month-old baby) and pregnant women, sit for hours on end, overnight and during the day, in rigid seating with no privacy and little prospect of proper rest.

The report recommends that the Home Secretary prioritise the provision of an overnight facility. In the meantime, improvements should be made to the existing facilities, and beds in other detention centres be released for people being kept at Heathrow overnight (p. 15).


The Board also monitors deportations from Heathrow. In removal as in other areas, the Board reiterates concerns raised in previous reports. Among these are unnecessary nighttime journeys to Heathrow, which bring people to the airport several hours before their flight departs (p. 23). Of related concern are the apparently unnecessary moves of detainees around the detention estate, also often at night (p. 25).

The report criticises as wasteful and uncaring (p. 26) administrative failures that result in abortive attempts at removal, and further notes that the time taken over booking back into detention people whose removals are unsuccessful is ‘sometimes…so long as, in our view, to smack of punishment’ (p. 29).

Since September 2010, the Board has not been given notice of chartered-flight removals, and it believes that such removals are now being made from another airport ‘at which there is currently no independent monitoring’ (p. 41). Where it has been able to observe removals, the Board has noted ‘kindness and consideration’ on the part of escorts (p. 36), however it does have some concerns, including that decisions about whether ill people are fit to fly are being taken by non-medically qualified border officials (p. 32).

Regarding the use of force during removal, the Board remarks that the instances it witnessed were ‘reasonable’ and ‘proportionate’ (p. 41). The death of Jimmy Mubenga in October 2010 during an attempted removal by overseas escorts took place on a day when the Board was not monitoring. The Board recommends that escort contractors be required to film overseas escorted boardings of scheduled flights (p. 41).


While the Monitoring Board’s report acknowledges areas of progress, such as a continued improvement in staff attitudes towards detainees (p. 30), its frustration at the failure to improve conditions and shorten holding times is palpable. In the end, it remarks, the ‘lack of change is unacceptable on grounds of humanity’ (p. 5).

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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