Grey and hopeless: The grim reality of immigration tribunals

The immigration system is full of small personal slights. These are the regular unspoken humiliations which reveal, more than any law or ministerial speech, just how little respect the state has for those who wish to live here.

Harley Miller, a specialist therapist who spent nine years working with vulnerable children on the NHS, was in Hatton Cross yesterday, where immigration tribunals are held just by Heathrow airport. She'd waited six months for her day in court. During that time she was banned from working, so she used up her life's savings on legal fees and subsistence.

Twenty judges were on call, but oversubscription meant Harley's case was put on the 'float list' along with a few others. Maybe you get seen, maybe you don't.

Hatton's Cross feels like somewhere where humans should not be. It's like Worthing crossed with Bosnia. Grey, grotesquely scaled and administrative.

The first thing that hits you when you leave the Tube station is the proximity of the planes as they come in for take-off and landing. It is rare to see one so close while in the air.  They are monstrous: deafeningly loud and massive. They own the landscape.

It feels like the place is for the planes. They are the dominant species in this environment and the people just ants scurrying below them.

Large industrial estates and iron fences litter the landscape. The people and objects here are the detritus of Heathrow. Aside from the tribunal, Harmondsworth detention centre is nearby, its inhabitants ready to be bundled out and onto a flight at any moment.

The route to York House, where the tribunals are held, is similarly unattractive. Large roads provide a constant stream of cars and lorries. The pavement is badly tended, with branches of trees prodding out and forcing pedestrians precariously onto the road.

The security at York House scan you with a sensor while chatting to one another, as if stacking shelves. You are waved into a grey waiting room. There are three snack machines on one side selling coffee for a remarkable 35p, the cheapest I have ever found in London. It is also the worst coffee I have drunk in some time - a grim, grey liquid, like the water left in an ashtray after the rain.

In the room sits a collection of desperate people, most of them being advised by lawyers. They look bleakly determined. Grim faces, staring forward, tired of answering the same old questions. Many of them will be here for hours, waiting all day on the off-chance they'll be called up, making occasional walks to the nearby Tesco and wolfing down a cold sandwich.

Harley has ten supporters to meet her. It's no small ask: the journey here is long and difficult and it's a working day. Most of them will have taken the day off to come.

She does not reflect her surroundings. She is warm and colourful and impassioned. She talks about dancing and romance and late evenings out and generally she is the type of person who makes interminable hours in a grey waiting room more tolerable.

We are kept waiting all morning. Then at midday we are told there are no judges free. At one we are told that it is lunchtime and hearings will recommence at two. People keep waiting.

In the afternoon we're told there will be no hearing today. So that's it: six months waiting, ten people taking the day off, all for nothing. For a moment it appears the hearing might be set for March. There is, of course, no justice in this. It creates a reality on the ground regardless of the legal process, for who can afford to go so many months without working? It is justice denied. Instead, Harley is told slots are open in September, as if she was very lucky.

There is something decidedly dismissive about the entire enterprise. These are the tiny humiliations of the immigration system. Only the naive or the hopelessly imaginative would consider it a positive advert for British justice.

Grayling's paranoid attack on charities shows he's losing the plot

In the last two weeks, three damning reports have been published by the chief inspector of prisons. Doncaster is failing, Hindley is failing, Isis is failing. The litany of disasters is seemingly endless: children found hanging in their cells, prisoners attacked with make-shift weapons, stuffed in a cell together, locked in 23-hours a day, staff numbers slashed, funding cut, ever more inmates being crammed into a creaking system which is coming apart at the seams.

The prison estate is very good at preventing prisoners, or former prisoners, from talking to journalists. But the reports which do come in mention unreported protests by inmates after being locked up all day, small-scale riots and a fundamental breakdown of trust between inmates and guards.

I'm told that one prison has started transporting sex offenders to other facilities. Sex offenders are usually the first victim of prison disorder. Their removal often indicates that authorities are losing confidence in their ability to control an institution.

For the first time, the justice secretary deigned to talk about it yesterday on the Today programme, if only to deny there was any crisis. His only other pronouncements are becoming increasingly paranoid, as if he is imagining ever-more villainous enemies among the people who point out the failings in the system.

A week ago, an article by Grayling attacking charities went up on the Telegraph website and then was immediately taken down. Perhaps the editorial staff thought twice at publishing a piece which appeared to show an author balanced perilously on the edge of political rationality, even if he is a secretary of state.

It went up again over the weekend. It is a quite deranged piece of writing, not improved by the Telegraph's strange style-guide insistence on capitalising the term 'Left', as if this were a missive from Trotsky.

Grayling says the internet petition site 38 Degrees is "in name, a forum for people to start their own campaigns, but in reality, an anti-government pressure group".

He goes on: "As with much of the Left's campaigns and propaganda, the aim is often to portray the government in a very different light to the actual reality."

The article shows Grayling start to dwell on the idea of a fifth column, an army of Labour insiders embedded in the charity sector, intent on overthrowing the government.  "The issues they latch onto are usually about spending more of your money – or undermining the crucial work we are doing to turn the country round," he warns.

He then launches into an extraordinary personal attack on Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who he calls "one of the most prominent Labour-supporting pressure group leaders".

Grayling has long detested the Howard League. He is understood to have cancelled an inquiry into sex and rape in prison because of their involvement. He stormed out of a parliamentary meeting because they were mentioned in glowing terms.

This is Crook's account of what she did over the weekend, while Grayling was writing up an attack on her. You can decide for yourself if she sounds like a Labour militant.

"Today Labour held a summit on the crisis in prisons and I was invited to attend. I decided in the end it was not appropriate as the Labour press office sent out a note pre-empting the discussion by listing the policies the party had already decided on, many of which I think are wrong or trivial. Secondly the event was branded as so partisan that I felt it was inappropriate for a charity to attend."

The Howard League is independent, impartial and non-aligned. It is funded from multiple sources and doesn't accept government grants. Grayling's attack on it is indicative of his own mindset rather than its own. He sees party political conspiracy where there is public research. He sees anti-government agitation where there is scrutiny. He is a tiny tyrant, jealously guarding his little empire as it crumbles to dust.

He's been this way for some time. I'm told that as employment minister he took to calling the Citizen's Advice chief executive every time she said anything critical about welfare reform. Sources say this eventually had some effect and led to a watering down of its criticism of the government. Gradually policy officers were stripped of their external roles, such as talking to the media.

In late 2012, the chief executive was sent a letter from Grayling in which he complained about a certain piece of work they'd done. Management told staff that the letter said: "You are a bunch of lefties, and if it were up to me I would shut you down". At that point management went into a flap and policy work was basically dismantled, in favour of a more 'think tank' approach.

Citizen's Advice, it should be said, deny they've watered down their criticism of the government and pointed me towards recent campaigns on employment support allowance as evidence they're still robust in their relationship to government.

This treatment of charities is standard operating procedure for the coalition government. It has tried to shut down charity criticism in two ways: through legislation and co-option.

The first took the form of the lobbying bill, which did nothing to address lobbying but severely hampered charities' and trade unions' role in civic society. It was so bad it united the Taxpayers' Alliance and the Trade Union Congress. Quite the achievement.

It aimed to limit spending on campaign activity in the year ahead of a general election and redefined electoral activity as anything which could affect the outcome of an election. It was a startling and undemocratic attempt to close down scrutiny, while cynically pretending to tackle lobbying.

The other method used to close down criticism from charities is incorporate them into the public service delivery system. Big, important groups with name-recognition have been hollowed out of their principles in the desperate bid for government contracts. They are terrified of commenting on government policies which are demonstrably counter to the goals they strive for.

This goes for some charities working within prisons, who are as aggressive in fielding questions about what goes on there as the Ministry of Justice. And it goes on in the realm of immigration too, where charities' role picking up the breadcrumbs left over from contracts to the likes of Serco and G4S have made them terrified of biting the hand that feeds them.

Charity criticism is being shut down in the courts and in public service delivery contracts. And when that doesn't work it is shut down by a campaign of bullying and intimidation from ministers.

Grayling's paranoid delusions are not just personal failings. They are reflections of government policy.

The repercussions are plain to see. A prison crisis has developed which no-one is trying to address. Yesterday, the chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association said the secretary of state and lord chancellor was "in a state of unparalleled denial". He added: "His programme has no grounding in reality. He has shown blatant disregard for the views of experts and practitioners on almost every issue. Make no mistake, this crisis is not one of prisons but of the entire English justice system."

At some point the secretary of state's refusal to listen to evidence and personal attacks on his critics must be considered more than personal failings. They are political negligence.

Grayling's privatisation system comes apart at the seams

One day, two more failures of privatisation in the prison system. Yesterday, the prison inspector's report on Doncaster prison, which is run by Serco under a 'payment by results' system, found levels of violence were four times above the norm. Then A4e announced it was scrapping its contract to provide education in London prisons. Both provide telling examples of how the profit motive fails to provide effective services in criminal justice.

It's difficult to know exactly what has gone wrong because so much information is kept away from prying eyes. And that doesn't just apply to the press or the public. Even ministers are not entitled to scrutinise private provision of public services. Justice minister Simon Hughes admitted last month he couldn't visit women's rehabilitation centres because to visit one and not all of them would open up the Ministry of Justice to judicial review after the work is contracted out.

So what do we know? We know the prison service management's assessment rated 28 prisons 'of concern'. Six of them, including Doncaster, were upgraded to avoid falling into the 'of serious concern' category. But we don't know why.

Similarly, we know A4e said it was terminating its provision of the contract because it was going to make a loss, but it provided no further information about the "extremely challenging" issues in delivering the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) or the "number of constraints" which had "a heavy impact on learner attendance, completion and achievements". The firm is paid by how much education it provides. The implication seems to be that prisoners were not able to get to its services within the prison.

In all likelihood - and in the absence of information from the Ministry of Justice - we might conclude that the savage reduction in staff numbers and relentless increase in prisoner numbers have made education provision all but impossible. There just aren't enough staff to take prisoners from their cells to activities – be it education or the library or work.

Neville Thurlbeck, the former News of the World journalist who just got out of prison for phone-hacking, describes spending 22 to 24 hours of the day locked up in an eight foot by ten foot cell with Andy Coulson. He said:

"I don't wish to complain in the slightest, because it's what I expected a British prison to look like. I can disabuse anybody of the notion that it's a holiday camp. There are interminable hours of boredom and pain. The beds are made of what I can only describe as giant pencil rubbers and over time your hips and shoulders and elbows start to ache. It is pretty grim."

The men got an average of half an hour's exercise a day, but twice during their stay they went 41 hours without any break.

According to Rod Clark, chief executive of the Prison Education Trust:

"The A4e announcement shows just how tough it is delivering services in England's jails. The delivery of education for prisoners across the country is being seriously affected by overcrowding and staff shortages which are leaving people locked up for longer, so they can't get to class and providers struggle to meet their targets. These pressures are having a negative impact on safety and rehabilitation, as highlighted only yesterday by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. It may be that this latest decision by A4e to stop working in London's prisons is a result of these problems."

We may not know why these problems are happening, but we have some impression of what the results are. The tutors who dedicate themselves to trying to improve the lives of prisoners have been cut adrift, two years after having to switch contract when A4e took over. When the University College Union (UCU) did a study into prison tutors in February, it found a third dismissed the idea it was a fulfilling career. Half said they'd be looking for a new job in the next 12 months.

"The findings point towards a workforce whose terms of employment have become increasingly casualised, who are given very little recognition of their experience, and little opportunity to use their judgement independently, and whose views are not consulted by those who manage them," the report found. Contracts didn't offer job security, pay was usually at the lower end of the scale, there were concerns that prisons didn't have access to training, there were insufficient resources for them to teach appropriately, they were bullied by managers and there was insufficient staff to deliver a proper learning experience.

Private firms push down wages and make contractual arrangements with staff 'flexible' in a bid to reduce costs. Then the prison service overcrowds prisons and cuts officer numbers, making it impossible for those staff that do remain to deliver decent teaching.

As Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says:

"It's difficult to know precisely why A4e finds itself running this contract at a loss but it is clear that prisoners are spending more and more time locked down in overcrowded cells in understaffed prisons. Wasting time rather than doing time is a far cry from the rehabilitation revolution. Withdrawal of prison education calls into question both this government's capacity to award contracts for delivery of essential services and its commitment to rehabilitation. Our prisons are being reduced to warehouses – nothing more."

In Doncaster, the situation is even more severe. The word 'violence' appears 22 times in the unannounced prison inspector's report. "Level of assaults and fights was very high," the report found. "The management of violence was arbitrary and not well focused. Support for victims was poor."

The use of Chris Grayling's draconian "right-wing solutions" clearly plays a role. Many of the prisoners at risk of self-harm were on basic – a tough, humiliating and depersonalising punishment regime – or in solitary confinement.

Staff are overwhelmed and lack control. A wing was damaged by fire during a recent riot. "On the wing where a disturbance had taken place immediately before the inspection, prisoners were located in damaged cells," the report found. "Staff and prisoners told us that some prisoners had been locked in cells with no running water or electricity for more than two days." One man had not received essential heart medication for ten days.

The prison, which is designed for 738 prisoners, is holding 1,132. Staff numbers have been cut by ten per cent over three years. Prisoners are kept in their cells for about 22 hours a day.

As Frances Crook, chief executive of the Hoard League, says:

"Serco's board should be made to explain why this violent, filthy, drug-infested prison is failing so miserably. Still at the centre of a major fraud investigation for its role in the tagging scandal, Serco has once again shown itself to be very good at winning contracts and very bad at delivering them. This disastrous report is the final straw. Doncaster should no longer be left in the hands of a multinational which puts shareholders' interests before public safety."

The recent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman report into suicide behind bars fleshes out the details. "Suicide risk assessments and monitoring arrangements were poor," it found. Many young adults were distressed to find themselves in crowded accommodation and then often segregated. "Concerns expressed by families were not acted upon by staff," it found.

At the best of times, the privatisation drive under Labour and the Tories delivered poor results. It is a false economy – encouraging private firms to hammer down costs just creates problems for the future as convicts are thrown back on the street without any real effort at rehabilitation. In many cases they are hardened by the abusive environment in which they have been kept. Soon enough, they commit a crime again and are thrown back into prison, at enormous taxpayer expense.

The profit motive simply does not suit a complex and expensive policy area like prison and rehabilitation. The 'customers' are by definition against participation. They often have the reading and numerical skills of a child, a host of mental health problems and a track record of offending. Rehabilitating them, in or out of prison, is not a cheap process. Firms either cut corners by reducing costs, hiring cheap and inexperienced staff and failing to invest in infrastructure – or they just cancel the contract, as A4e has done.

But these are not the best of times. They are awful. Staff numbers have dwindled under austerity cuts, but prisoner numbers continue to skyrocket as a tough-on-crime justice secretary stuffs ever more men and women into a system which long ago reached its limit.

Every day brings more evidence of chaos in the prison system. It is a perfect storm of incompetence, foolhardiness and ignorance. And there is no sign anyone wishes to change course. Precisely the opposite:Grayling is currently trying to make the contracts on privatised probation so lengthy that Labour will not be able to reverse them if it comes to power. Instead of changing course, he is ensuring we will continue to experience this disaster long into the future.

***

Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said:

"Doncaster has developed high quality training and resettlement programmes for short term offenders - which have been successful in cutting rates of reoffending. This is a significant achievement. But at the time of this inspection other aspects of performance in the prison had dropped below the standards we expect. Serco took immediate action in response to the inspection findings - strengthening the management team; prioritising safety and implementing a comprehensive improvement programme. I am confident that these actions have addressed the concerns identified by HMCIP but we will monitor progress closely to ensure the prison is able to deliver its regime safely and securely."

Wyn Jones, Serco’s director of custodial pperations, said:

"Serco has a strong track record of prison management in the UK and abroad and we are proud of what has been achieved at HMP & YOI Doncaster over the past 20 years.  However the prison has recently faced a number of significant challenges and has sometimes struggled to cope with some of these. We fully accept the recommendations that are made in this in this HMCIP report and we have already launched a major improvement programme.  We are absolutely determined that Doncaster will once more become a prison of which everyone can be proud."

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