Friday, July 17, 2009

Read it and Weep. It should make you angry!



This is a report from Sarah, a friend of ours from Rachel’s church. It is the verbatim account from Hansard of a debate yesterday in the House of Commons regarding our friend Enid and her asylum application. I am sorry it is long but please stick with it.

Greg Mulholland (Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Leeds, North-West): First, I wish to thank Mr. Speaker for very graciously allowing this debate to take place, because I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the case of Enid Ruhango in the House. I truly hope that this debate will finally lead us to a just resolution of this matter.

I make it clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that at no point during this debate will I refer to any aspect of this case that is considered sub judice. I would not normally bring an individual asylum case before the House, but I do so today because this particular case is such a sorry saga of administrative incompetence, systematic failure and a worrying disregard for human rights. My objective today is simply to put the facts of this case on the record and highlight them to the Minister and his Department. It concerns a young woman who suffered great abuse in her home country and, I am sorry to say, at the hands of our own immigration system.

Enid Ruhango first came to see me in 2006. She was being supported by her friends in the community of the All Hallows church in my constituency. Before approaching me, Enid had sought and received assistance from the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), to whose work on this case at that time I pay tribute. I will never forget hearing Enid's story. Her description of what happened to her in Uganda was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to listen to in my life. She had experienced things that most of us could not imagine and certainly would not want to contemplate. She was clearly traumatised, yet she retained a quiet courage and dignity despite all that she had been through.

Enid Ruhango entered this country as long ago as 5 December 2003, having fled Uganda where she had been subjected to torture and rape at the hands of Ugandan forces. Enid claimed for asylum on 15 December 2003, but her claim was refused on 9 February 2004 on the grounds that she did not qualify under the 1951 United Nations convention on the status of refugees. On 30 April 2004, a further appeal was dismissed on both asylum and human rights grounds. In 2004, both Enid's original application for asylum and her appeal were refused on the same grounds.

On 17 May 2004, she was detained at Waterside court, in Leeds, and was transported from there to Yarl's Wood. At Waterside court, she was offered no food. In addition, she has a long-term condition for which she needs to take medicine, but she had no medication with her at that time. Someone was sent to her flat, but they did not find any medication and she was not provided with any replacement medication. Transport left at around 7 pm and arrived at Yarl's Wood around midnight. She was not told that she would need to go to the toilet before she left and, although the van stopped on the journey, she was not allowed out. She was given no food by the escorts on the journey, and staff at Yarl's Wood gave her none on arrival. She was alone all that time in the back of the van, which smelled of urine and faeces.

Enid was taken to the reception at Yarl's Wood around 7 am. Staff there gave her no food, though the van did not come for her until some time between noon and 2 pm on 18 May. Early in the morning, she had received tea and chocolate, but only from her room-mate. The transport arrived at Heathrow around 5.30 pm and Enid had to wait inside for a period. She asked to use a toilet and was refused; she was told that she would have to wait until she got on the plane. Again, she was given no food. Not surprisingly, Enid was highly distressed when escorts forcibly attempted to put her on board the plane and, as a result, airline staff refused to fly her to Uganda. She also reports that she received racial abuse from escorts, and that handcuffs were used in a way which resulted in cuts to the wrists-they left scars that are still visible.

In July 2005, in protest at the way they had been treated by the detention centre, Enid and her close friend Sophie Odogo-as well as several other women at Yarl's Wood-began a 38-day hunger strike. Enid's health deteriorated rapidly and she wrote to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, who wrote to the then Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), informing him that the women were on hunger strike and saying that this proved their desperation. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire also raised concerns about the quality of legal advice available to the women. In his detailed and substantial reply the Minister rebutted the suggestions of inadequate legal advice and ignored the information regarding the hunger strike.

Enid and her friend Sophie Odogo were both admitted to Bedford hospital, but only after they had ended their hunger strike and had started eating again. At no time during the hunger strike were they taken off the premises at Yarl's Wood.

In a letter dated 23 August 2005, the Immigration Minister stated that the Home Office took no account of the well-being of an individual once they had returned to their country of origin, and therefore the problems that Enid might have securing the medication for her condition when in Uganda were not a consideration in her appeal. On 17 October 2005, the Minister wrote again, saying:

"The doctors at Yarl's Wood assessed Ms Ruhango yesterday afternoon and concluded that there is no medical or psychiatric problem with her. She is eating and normally mobile."

Surely someone who has been in that situation cannot be considered to be in a state of physical and mental well-being. Both Enid and Sophie continued to be held at Yarl's Wood despite their medical problems. Sophie's condition deteriorated so badly that she was transferred to a secure mental health facility, and they were of course in no condition to be deported.

Enid complained that she was not receiving correct treatment for her condition and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire wrote again, voicing his concerns that Yarl's Wood did not seek second options from objective medical sources in the treatment of detainees.

On 7 December 2005, Enid's bail hearing was ordered for 10 am at Sheldon court in Birmingham. Transport left Yarl's Wood around 9 am. It did not go directly to Birmingham, but arrived at Colnbrook immigration removal centre around 12.30 pm. Only then were toilet facilities made available inside the building. Enid was taken to Birmingham, arriving between 3.30 and 4.30 pm, when the bail hearing had been fixed for 10 am. No food or toilet facilities were made available between Colnbrook and Birmingham. On the return journey to Yarl's Wood, Enid was supplied with Kentucky Fried Chicken-escorts had contacted Yarl's Wood, saying she had not eaten since the morning. She arrived back at Yarl's Wood around 6 pm.

As is well documented, the chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers launched an inquiry into health care at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in May 2005, after concerns were raised not only for the safety of Enid and Sophie but for that of the other women taking part in the hunger strike. The report refers to Enid as Ms B and Sophie as Ms A, and it states:

"The delivery of healthcare was undermined by a lack of needs assessment, weak clinical governance systems, and inadequate staff training in relation to trauma...When clinical concerns were raised, the information was not systematically addressed or actioned. Nor was independent medical opinion sought or adhered to...Towards the end of the hunger strike, they were probably being advised inappropriately to re-feed in Yarl's Wood. One seems to have been denied painkilling medication while on hunger strike."

I could go on. Those devastating criticisms of the procedures in Yarl's Wood completely undermine the assertions made in correspondence between me and the Home Office that Enid was in receipt of good care there. Moreover, health reports since then have shown that this is a woman suffering from psychological problems.

On 22 December 2006, Dr. Christina Pourgourides, a consultant psychiatrist, said of Enid:

"She is currently suffering from very significant mental health problems, namely post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive illness...She is at very substantial risk of a grave deterioration in her mental health, particularly if faced with the prospect of further detention and/or removal. Should this occur, I believer her to be a significant health risk."

Enid was eventually released from detention on 26 February 2006. Even though Yarl's Wood is supposed to be a temporary detention centre, she was there for nine months. Although both a Member of Parliament and a solicitor have raised concerns independently about the medical attention at Yarl's Wood, I do not feel that that has been taken into consideration in this case.

Throughout this time, I have had much correspondence with different Ministers on this issue, as has the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. In 2006, he wrote to make the point that Enid should be allowed to stay in the country because of her association with Sophie Odogo, who was then involved in a civil case and has now been granted leave to remain.

Enid's treatment in the asylum and immigration system has been a scandal. The Home Office continually changed the schedule according to which Enid had to report to the immigration centre between weekly and fortnightly, despite the fact that she and her supporters had provided psychological reports detailing the emotional damage that these increased visits were doing. When the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, took over responsibility for the case at the Home Office, my requests for a meeting about Enid's asylum case were repeatedly declined. Despite several requests, the Home Office has not altered its position.

In a letter that I wrote on 25 July 2006, I ensured that the Minister was aware of the damning verdict on the centre as detailed in the report by the chief inspector of prisons. I have written several times to express my frustration at the clear lack of progress since that appalling time at Yarl's Wood.

Enid made a fresh asylum and European convention on human rights claim on 9 May 2008 but, notwithstanding its complexity and obvious merit, the Home Office refused to treat it as a fresh claim and sought therefore to deny her a right of appeal. Two psychologists said that Enid was clearly not mentally fit to be deported, but it took the Home Office 11 days to reject those submissions, with no right of appeal. The Home Office quickly withdrew its refusal to accept them when Enid's lawyers called for judicial review-surely a sign that they knew their case was weak-and Enid's solicitors agreed to suspend their application for judicial review at the Home Office's request.

In 2008, the Home Office again ignored psychiatric reports and put Enid back on a weekly reporting schedule, causing her great distress. In March, an extraordinary series of events led to the cancellation, on the day, of an immigration hearing on the case. I made considerable effort to attend the hearing, as did several witnesses, including a consultant psychiatrist who travelled from Birmingham and a witness who travelled from Bedford, as well as the barrister and solicitor, who travelled from London. On the very day, however, the Home Office withdrew the procedure, which frankly beggars belief given that everyone was already in place. I wrote to the Home Office asking for the costs of the cancellation, but I still have not had a response. That, I am afraid, epitomises the way this case has been handled.

Let us consider the history of this case. It beggars belief that no one at the Home Office reviewed the decision before the hearing on 30 March. Responsibility for the farce of withdrawing the hearing on the day lies entirely with the Home Office. Again, it caused enormous distress to an already traumatised woman. Then the Home Office agreed to make a new decision in 10 working days; it did not keep to that deadline, but it did then decide to refuse asylum and grant discretionary leave to remain for six months. That, frankly, was particularly cruel, because, given that leave was granted for less than six months, it meant that Enid had no right of appeal-the cruellest twist in this cruel case and the end, effectively, of her asylum claim.

I have raised this matter in the House on several occasions, but never received a satisfactory reply. I have written numerous times to Ministers, and before that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire did so. Most recently, I raised the case in this House with the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who reassured me that the Government were looking into the case. Again, however, I have heard nothing since.

I appreciate the opportunity to put the facts of this shameful case on the record, and I hope that the Minister will consider it in its entirety. I shall assist him in doing so and will happily meet him and his colleagues, if they so wish. The simple reality is that this woman, who was terrorised in her home country of Uganda, has been let down in the United Kingdom. Enid's only family now are her friends and the community in Leeds and, in particular, at All Hallows church. The handling of this case, and the treatment of Enid Ruhango by our immigration system, is a stain on the reputation of this country as a bastion of democracy and a haven from political persecution. It is surely time to let her get on with her life-a life so damaged-which has now, in this country, been in limbo for such a long time.

Will the Minister, or his colleague the Minister for Borders and Immigration, look into this case and intervene personally, not just out of compassion-one could hardly not feel that listening to the facts-but out of a clear sense of the need to right the wrongs done to this woman in the name of his Department? I implore him and his ministerial colleague to intervene and finally bring this sorry saga to the only just conclusion and to fulfil the manifest moral responsibility to end Enid's years of suffering by finally granting her indefinite leave to remain in this country. After so many years, and after so much failure and suffering for Enid in our immigration system, anything less would be an insult to justice.
6.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this debate. He is continuing his long interest in this case and the wider issues that it raises. He sought, as is his right as a Member of this House, to put his concerns on the record, and he has done that in a forceful but measured way. I want to try to respond to some of the specific points put to me, but he will be aware that it is not the policy of the Government to discuss individual cases, especially when they are the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, as they are in this case.

The wider context is that the Government are delivering the biggest shake-up of the immigration system in a generation, and are transforming the asylum system. The Government proudly maintain the United Kingdom's tradition of providing protection to individuals who are found to be at risk of persecution or ill-treatment if they return to their home countries. To honour those obligations, the UK Border Agency has established an entirely new process for managing asylum applicants. Case ownership has improved the asylum process by giving responsibility for concluding consideration of applications to one person. That has created a strong incentive for cases to be concluded by giving case owners clear targets to work towards. Trained caseworkers in UKBA carefully consider all asylum and human rights claims on their individual merits, in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention and the European convention on human rights.

All applications are considered against the background of the latest available country information and after full consideration of all the evidence provided. By the end of last year, as a result of those new processes, 60 per cent. of new applicants were granted permission to remain or removed within six months. By comparison, in 1997 it took an average of 22 months just to take an initial decision on asylum applications. We are succeeding in our goal of handling applications faster. That helps those who need our protection to integrate quickly into our communities, and it means that those who do not need that protection know quickly that they should leave. Asylum intake has remained broadly at the same level for the past four years, and it is less than a third of the level at which it peaked in 2002.

Last year, around 30 per cent. of the applications for asylum that were considered resulted in some kind of protection being granted in the first instance. Each of the applicants who were refused had a right of appeal to independent courts. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal hears and decides such appeals, and it is for judges in the tribunal to decide the remit of the appeal hearing. The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about the use of immigration detention in the case that he described. Again, I must stress that there are ongoing legal proceedings on that matter, and I do not want to prejudice those in any way. However, I can talk about the wider issue.

John Battle (Labour M.P. for Leeds, West): I understand that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister. We should be grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) for the way in which he raised the issue, and for the facts that he has put on the table. I represent the reception centre for the whole of west Yorkshire-it is in my neighbourhood-and Waterside court. I probably see 100 or more asylum seekers a month, and have done for years. I have to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there has been a lack of care-indeed, a neglect of the duty of care-at Yarl's Wood. On Enid's case, may I offer her and the hon. Gentleman a word of support? She has tremendous support and there is strong, personal, in-depth solidarity with her in the local community. Will the Minister assure us that he will not let the case lie in a Department in-tray, and not let it be backlogged in a legal procedure, but will instead seriously get his Department to look at her case again, from tonight?

Mr. Campbell: As ever, my right hon. Friend makes a powerful case and speaks up for his local community. He will appreciate, I am sure, that there are legal processes at work. I cannot comment on specifics, but his remarks are on the record, and I assure him that they have been heard.

UKBA has 11 immigration removal centres. They provide 3,000 bed spaces, which are predominantly for individuals who are awaiting removal, or whose applications are being processed under the detained fast-track arrangements. Let me make it clear that no one likes to use detention, but it is an essential part of the Government's commitment to operate a firm but fair immigration and asylum policy, as it assists us in removing those who do not qualify for leave to remain here and who refuse to leave the UK voluntarily, or who would otherwise abscond. The use of immigration detention is always a last resort, but if people refuse to go home, detention becomes a necessity.

Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre has just over 400 bed spaces: about 280 are designated for single females, and about 120 are family bed spaces. The centre has full-time independent social workers and a range of trained experts to monitor welfare 24 hours a day, and it has been praised on numerous occasions for its facilities. In fact, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons has recently praised it for the "significant progress" that has been made.

Greg Mulholland: I am very pleased to hear that there have been improvements since the damning report. That news is extremely welcome and hugely important, but this case is about historical failures. It is wonderful that things have improved, but, to echo the comments of my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), I must ask, will the Minister please assure me that he will consider the issue in its entirety? The best asylum and immigration system in the world will still get things wrong sometimes.

Mr. Campbell: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my comments to some extent. I am aware of the time scale involved, but I think that it is important to put the issue in context and to address some of his criticisms of the system by saying that lessons have been learned from the inspector's report and that changes have been made. The hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) have put on the record the need to proceed with the matter expeditiously, quickly and properly, and to see it in the round; and, as I keep repeating, there are legal proceedings to address those requirements.

The hon. Gentleman's concerns do not just relate to the use of immigration detention and the facilities at Yarl's Wood, but to the treatment of those people arriving at Yarl's Wood who claim to have been the victim of torture. At Yarl's Wood, there is an on-site dedicated health care centre with a small in-patient facility. I know that Medical Justice raised concerns about Yarl's Wood in 2005, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, UKBA commissioned the chief inspector of prisons to undertake a review of its provision of health care services. The chief inspector made 48 recommendations, of which 38 were accepted, eight were accepted in principle or in part and two were rejected. The health care team that residents can now access is made up of GPs, general nurses, mental health nurses, health visitors, midwives, dentists, counsellors and allied health care professionals and consultants. There are 14 full-time and two part-time nurses at the centre, and a bank of seven can be called upon, if required, in an emergency.

UKBA's policy is clear and consistent with the detention centre rules of 2001, which require that, unless the detainee refuses, they should be given a physical and mental examination by a medical practitioner within 24 hours of their admission to the detention centre. When there are concerns or allegations that the detainees have previously been the victims of torture, health care staff are required to report such cases to the centre manager, and those reports are passed to the office responsible for managing and/or reviewing the individual's detention. In the light of the information in the report, case workers must then review the individual's continued detention and respond to the centre within two working days of receipt of the report. It is important to note that anyone detained under immigration powers can apply for bail at any time. The courts then consider whether detention is appropriate.

The issues that have been raised this evening are serious and complex. I assure the hon. Gentleman that UKBA is dealing with the case in line with its procedures, and that his constituent will be allowed to remain in the United Kingdom to conclude her ongoing litigation.

Sarah adds: Greg was also really appreciative that some of us were able to be there. He was a bit nervous before the speech and asked us to pray with him.