House of Lords backs ban for detention of pregnant women in immigration centres

Woman  c. Jenny Wicks
Image by Jenny Wicks

The UK Government has been defeated in the Lords over the detention of pregnant women in immigration centres.

Scottish Refugee Council has welcomed the move, which saw peers vote by 274 to 215 for an outright ban on the detention of pregnant women in the third reading of the Immigration Bill.

Labour's Baroness Lister of Burtersett said such detentions were neither sensible nor humane and even the detention of one pregnant woman was one too many.

But Lord Keen of Elie, for the UK Government, said that while detention of pregnant women should only be in "exceptional circumstances" an absolute bar was not practical.

"It is important the Government is able to detain for a short period those with no right to be in the UK who refuse to leave voluntarily," he said.

The vote follows an independent review into the welfare of immigration detainees by Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, which called for a complete ban on the detention of pregnant women in immigration centres such as Yarl's Wood.

Lord Keen said: "The Government will be making a formal announcement on this very shortly.

"It will not involve an absolute prohibition of the detention of pregnant woman.

"It will, however, set out a very clear and limited time for detention only in exceptional circumstances as it may be applied to pregnant women."

He added: "There are circumstances in which for example a pregnant woman will arrive at an airport or a port with clearly no right whatsoever to enter the United Kingdom.

"They may present either a security risk or a risk of absconding and without any power of detention it would be quite impossible to arrange their return at that time of arrival."

Backing the amendment, opposition spokesman Lord Rosser said: "It's my party's policy that pregnant women should not be detained in these circumstances."

Crossbencher Lord Alton of Liverpool said he had been to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre and told peers: "This is not the place where pregnant women should be."

Liberal Democrat Baroness Hamwee highlighted the conclusion of a review by Stephen Shaw, a former prison and probation ombudsman, which found detention had "an incontrovertibly deleterious effect" on the health of women and their unborn children.

Scottish Refugee Council welcomed the outcome of the vote. Women’s Policy Development Officer Nina Murray said:

“Immigration status and administrative convenience should never be the basis for deciding whether to protect men, women and children from harm.

“The House of Lords is to be commended for yet again reminding the Government of what is right and what is wrong. The vote today is an important step in the right direction and the Government must now seriously reconsider its position on immigration detention.

“There is overwhelming evidence that the routine and indefinite incarceration of women and men who have committed no crime is ineffective and inhumane. To argue – in the face of clear evidence that detention compromises the health and wellbeing of pregnant women and their unborn children ¬– that implementing a ban would be impractical, is simply unjustifiable.

“This issue is about the prevention of harm and about access to fundamental rights, be that when the wellbeing of mother and baby is compromised in detention, or when survivors are barred from accessing refuge and safety from domestic abuse. Safety must be the basis for protection and never a woman’s status.

“The Government should take heed, ban the detention of pregnant women, and ensure something good comes from this shocking Immigration Bill.”