Rule 35: How Britain knowingly detains victims of torture

Britain detains torture victims. It is happening in even the best-run and most conscientious detention centres. It is in the small print of the positive inspection reports. It is starting to become a truism – a moral inconvenience, the pothole of the human rights world.

Today's report on Campsfield House detention centre is a case in point. Like so many detention centres, staff are trying their hardest to run a decent institution, despite the moral abyss they have found themselves in. As the chief inspector of prisons puts it:

"As with all inspections of immigration detention facilities, we were mindful that detainees were not held because they had been charged with a criminal offence or through normal judicial processes."

Of course, if the country still had a firm hold on its moral faculties, this would not be a tolerable sentence. But that's not where we are.

Instead, people make do. Staff try their hardest. The centre was safe, there was very little violence or bullying, those at risk of self-harm were well cared for, force was seldom used, relations between staff and detainees was excellent and provision of activities was good. There had only been one suicide since the last inspection.

And then there it is, a minor quibble in an otherwise spotless inspection:

"In two separate cases, a doctor stated that a detainee might have been the victim of torture but caseworkers maintained they should remain in detention stating that this would not impact on the detainee's health."

The impact on the detainee's health is irrelevant. Britain is not supposed to detain torture victims. There is no situation in which the detention of a torture victim is allowed.

It's not enough to lay the blame at the feet of caseworkers. Their ignorance of the rules on torture victims is so pervasive it is clearly not a case of a few bad apples. This is systemic and that means that, either through omission or purposeful misdirection, it is part of how the Home Office trains its staff.

The supposed safeguard against the detention of torture victims is Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules. This mandates that detention centre doctors alert the Home Office to anyone who might be a victim of torture, which then triggers a review.

We know it doesn't work. The UN Committee Against Torture has branded it an "empty paper-pushing exercise". A joint review by the inspector of prisons and the chief inspector of borders and immigration said the medical reports on torture survivors were "often perfunctory" and "contain no objective assessment". Replies to the reports were "cursory and dismissive".

The inspection of Campsfield House suggests even the doctors themselves do not recognise the role Rule 35 plays. They have taken to noting the detainees' claims rather than substantiating them through medical investigation.

"Most rule 35 reports prepared by medical practitioners repeated detainees’ accounts without providing clinical judgements… Many merely repeated the detainee's account and failed to provide a medical opinion, for example, on the consistencies between scarring and alleged methods of torture… They were of little use to caseworkers as a result and the process as a whole failed adequately to safeguard the most vulnerable detainees, including those who had been tortured."

Somewhere along the line the clinical testing process to assess claims of torture turned into something cursory and without substance. Medical practitioners are now either so uninterested or ill-informed about their pivotal role in the process that they are failing to accomplish it.

With doctors failing to fulfil their obligations, we can expect even less from the case workers. The report found:

"Caseworkers' responses were prompt, although sometimes dismissive, while others did not comply with Home Office policy."

In one case, "a caseworker maintained that a person should remain in detention because he 'did not mention being tortured during your screening interview'".

Last year, during the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, then-Foreign Office minister Baroness Warsi said:

"Today, on 26 June, we show our continued support to victims of torture. The UK has consistently and unreservedly condemned the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and recognises that the impact on victims, their families and their communities is devastating."

All fine words. But as they were made torture victims languished in British detention centres, having committed no crime but trying to escape the circumstances which traumatised them in the first place. They are still there now, failed by a system the Home Office refuses to properly implement.