The Government “rewriting the rules” on the standards required at short-term holding facilities for migrants is “a bit like the Soviet Union”, Parliament heard.
Regulations introduced in December have created a new category of holding centre at Manston, Kent, that allows Channel migrants to be held for up to four days, up from 24 hours.
This was in response to chaos last year, when the processing centre became severely overcrowded, with many people held for much longer than the legal maximum and in “unacceptable” conditions, due to a surge in small boat crossings.
However, the new category of facility will not have the same safeguards and standards that previously applied to anyone held for longer than 24 hours, including for children and vulnerable adults, such as victims of torture.
Speaking in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, who worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham compared the “rewriting of the rules” to the USSR.
He said it “cannot be right” that when the system “fails to meet legislation passed by this House, the response is simply to rewrite the rules.”
He added: “It’s a bit like – I’ve been reading a lot about the Soviet Union at the moment – wherever the five-year plan wasn’t met, you simply change reality to meet what you were going to get.
“There’s an echo of that.”
He added that it was “highly regrettable” that “essential” safeguards were being removed.
In a so-called regret motion, peers called for the Government to withdraw the regulations, which were “rushed in without consultation during a recess,” social policy expert Baroness Lister of Burtersett argued.
The Labour peer highlighted the concerns of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that the new rules were introduced for the “operational convenience of the Home Office, rather than good reasons of public policy.”
She added that the regulations were “harmful” for the welfare of migrants as it means that those held for more than 24 hours no longer have a firm right to separate sleeping accommodation for men and women, and families with minors to have accommodation inaccessible to unrelated detained people.
Green Party peer Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle branded the regulations “unacceptable” and claimed the change “clearly fails to meet the basic standards of human rights”.
She asserted that the “horrifying” rules would damage the UK’s status in the rest of the world as a supporter of human rights across the globe.
Home Office minister Lord Murray of Blidworth acknowledged “concerns” about the new rules, but said he was confident it was an “appropriate, safe and decent response” to an “unprecedented” situation.
He argued that the new category of holding facility lies on scale between the 24-hour holding rooms and short-term residential facilities, where stays can be up to seven days, and that the standards reflect this intermediate-length timeframe.
Lord Murray explained that the Manston centre was undergoing “refurbishments” to improve the facilities from that of a 24-hour holding room, including a canteen, access to open air, and access to a room for confidential legal calls.
He said the Government “strives to prioritise the welfare” of vulnerable groups, but that they have to balance addressing immediate healthcare and vulnerabilities with “efficiency”.
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Hamwee said she found the idea of balancing efficiency with “treating people well” an “unpleasant concept”.
She agreed with the Bishop of Leeds that, instead of “changing the facilities to fit the rules, the rules are being changed to fit the facility”.
The Manston processing centre, a former military airfield near Ramsgate, has been branded a “unique” facility requiring “bespoke” arrangements – and the Government says there are no plans for it to be extended to any other facility.