Amber Rudd has been told to authorise a broad inquiry into Home Office contracts handed to firms like G4S following the exposure of “abhorrent” abuse allegedly suffered by immigrants at a privately-run detention centre.
The UK’s equality watchdog has given Ms Rudd 14 days to set out how she will arrange a probe or face the prospect of legal action or a forced investigation over her department’s handling of private sector contracts.
Any inquiry should explore “deliberate acts of humiliation and abuse” the watchdog says have been uncovered at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, but also “the adequacy” of Home Office outsourcing and the UK’s use of “indefinite detention” for immigrants.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the Home Secretary giving her notice of its decision in a move that marks a new and more muscular approach from the organisation.
Its letter was sent off the back of a BBC Panorama investigation into Brook House, near Gatwick Airport, which exposed abuse including a ‘choking’ incident that the watchdog says appears to amount to an unlawful physical assault.
Commission chair David Isaac told The Independent: “We saw evidence of deliberate acts of humiliation and abuse and unacceptable behaviour towards detainees who are mentally unwell and vulnerable. All of these actions are abhorrent.
“Clearly the Home Office has issues in managing its contractors and, as a result, the vulnerable people it’s responsible for are at risk.
“The Home Office must launch an immediate independent inquiry into this and we’ve written to them to say just that.”
The letter sets out how the BBC documentary presents evidence the Home Office is not protecting the rights of immigrant detainees under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It goes on to state that the Home Office’s obligations to inquire into the issue “can only be met by holding an independent inquiry”.
That inquiry should be “broad enough to take into consideration not only the actions of the officers directly involved in incidents” at the centre run by G4S, but also the “surrounding circumstances that enabled these incidents to occur”.
The Commission then raises concerns about “the adequacy of Government systems to ensure human rights compliance in the outsourcing of contracts for Home Office functions”.
It tells Ms Rudd that the inquiry’s terms of reference should enable it to make recommendations to enhance human rights and equality protections “generally in this field of public procurement” and that the inquiry should broadly “investigate Home Office outsourcing arrangements” for immigration detention centres.
The Commission also says footage presents evidence of the harmful impact of indefinite detention – something the UK is alone in practicing in the EU – and says it should be part of the inquiry too.
The letter ends: “We ask you to confirm within 14 days whether the Government will institute such an inquiry, and if not by what means it considers that the investigative duty will be met.
“Your response will enable the Commission to consider further whether it should exercise any of its statutory powers in relation to this matter.”
The Independent understands that the Commission could pursue a judicial review, launch its own investigation or issue a compliance notice forcing Ms Rudd to take action.
It comes after the watchdog set out plans to push for a “constitutional right to equality” to be enshrined in British law after Brexit, which the body said would rob the UK or a “safety net” for human rights.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have repeatedly made clear that the sort of behaviour on display in Panorama’s disturbing footage is utterly unacceptable and immediate action has been taken in response.
“G4S suspended 10 staff members and have since dismissed six of them, including a member of healthcare staff. The Home Office suspended a former G4S officer who was working for the department and dismissed him last month. All allegations were referred to Sussex Police, who are considering whether criminal offences have been committed.
“The Immigration Minister expects G4S to implement its action plan swiftly and rigorously and he is meeting G4S representatives next month to assess progress.”
In September G4S immediately suspended members of staff pending further investigation into allegations made about Brook House, with managing director for custodial and detention services Jerry Petherick saying: “There is no place for the type of conduct described in the allegations anywhere in G4S.
“Such behaviour is not representative of the many G4S colleagues who do a great job, often in difficult and challenging circumstances, across the country.”
The centre’s director Ben Saunders left his role at Brook House, one of two immigration centres run by G4S, with “immediate effect” three weeks after the scandal broke.
With a capacity for 508 adult men, Brook House was designed to hold people for up to 72 hours ahead of deportation, but some have been detained there for almost two years.
G4S was forced to repay £108.9m to the British Government in 2014 after overcharging on contracts to electronically tag offenders.
Nine of the of the Home Office's eleven immigration detention centres are run by private companies, including G4S, Mitie, Serco, GEO and Tascor, a subsidiary of Capita.
Any recommendations from an independent inquiry into outsourcing could have far-reaching implications for the way all government departments manage private contracts.
A National Audit office report last year showed that in 2014/15, 31 per cent of total government spending, or £242bn, was spent on external suppliers compared with £194bn on internal staff costs.
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