Dust or Magic, Friday, July 13 2007

Detention chief walks free

(But the Banality of Evil gets a good telling-off, in House of Commons Committee Room 4a, Thursday, 12th July 2007)

I WONDER HOW MANY OTHERS who came to the Medical Justice launch in the House of Commons yesterday are now kicking themselves, as I am, for not at least attempting a citizen's arrest of Brian Pollett? He was let off the hook at the last moment by the chair of the meeting, ex-Chief Inspector of Prisons Lord David Ramsbottom: all these suicides, attempted suicides, beatings, humiliations and sufferings in our immigrant prisons were a matter of a "gulf between policy and its implementation". But surely, suffering *is* the policy, isn't it? It is being achieved, as promised. And Pollett is the key link in the chain of command that makes it all happen.

Brian Pollett is the Home Office's Director of Detention Services (now part of the new Borders and Immigration Agency). He is responsible for locking up foreigners without trial or time limit, as part of the government's long-running, well-publicised policy of being "tough" on asylum seekers and other immigrants "to deter" people from coming to this country.

That is officially, not arguably, the policy. It is deterrence: a deliberate, declared policy of making one group of people suffer in order to influence the behaviour of others. "To send a clear message", as they put it. And (to make it crystal clear) stepping up that suffering with successive refinements to the law, when the targets for deterrence are not met.

Surely this violates even the rules of warfare, let alone civilised law, and the man responsible should be in handcuffs in the Hague, not going about his extraordinary business as if it were utterly normal and respectable.

There is not even the excuse that these victims have committed a crime: detained asylum seekers are merely attempting to exercise their legal rights. The government would probably like asylum-seeking to be illegal (they asked one group of incredulous academics, not long ago, to produce a report on "illegal asylum seekers"). The creation of new, technical crimes to justify incarceration (like arriving with incorrect or no travel documents) is an admission that they feel exposed to legal attack themselves.

Yet nobody challenges them, least of all the powerful people who have the power to do it effectively. Why? Misplaced compassion for a man with no trousers?

If this deference continues, then the government will at last find the courage to go the last little inch of the way, and make asylum-seeking the crime the Daily Mail, the Express and the BNP have always said it was. And then we had all better watch out because once that right goes, the whole idea of human rights goes with it.

At yesterday's meeting, Pollett sat in Committee Room 4a and heard what should have been his indictment. In particular, the trauma-specialist Dr Felicity de Zulueta explained step by step how Sophie Odogo, after being imprisoned, tortured and raped in Uganda, was reduced in a matter of months by Pollett's regime from a bright and confident young professional to a psychotic, prematurely-aged wreck. "It is unlikely she will ever be able to live independently again". See:


She quoted Pollett's own statements back to him, to the effect that patients' health is less important than their deportation.

Doctors Frank Arnold and Jonathan Swayne explained that this was not an exceptional story; on the contrary, psychological damage is the inevitable consequence of locking people up indefinitely ("the system is intrinsically damaging and should be scrapped"). On top of which there is the endemic violence and cruelty. One detention centre apparently has a guard known as "the boxer", who wears boxing gloves to batter reluctant deportees into compliance. And the Orwellian mind revealed by simultaneously denying that a deportee has anything to fear from their homeland's authorities, and threatening to inform those same authorities if they will not go quietly. Conservative MP Alistair Burt (who visited Sophie Odogo in Yarl's Wood) said that he felt that often "by the time they get to Yarl's Wood the damage has already been done" (through the devastating impact of the Home Office's dawn raids).

Pollett got up and replied that "detention is an essential part of immigration management" and that systems were in place to ensure everybody was treated with dignity. An activist intervened to ask about the denial of food to a breast-feeding mother at Yarl's Wood, overriding his bland dismissal that any such thing could happen with a clear and all-too-recognisable description of the woman's distraught effort to feed her baby and little boy in the middle of a prison. Cristal Amiss (BWRAP) intervened to suggest that we continue asking questions rather than allowing Pollett to continue ("we know what he's going to say anyway and time is short"). Ramsbottom acceded and Pollett stood there and responded to further, detailed and informed challenges apparently unruffled.

As the meeting wrapped up Pollett was thanked for "at least coming" - which some thought brave but I think was probably more of a career-move: demonstrating that he can take criticism in his stride, that he is tough enough for a bigger job. The authoritarian personality often cannot see evil, even when in the dock handcuffed to guards. "The Banality of Evil" comes to sound like a parliamentary title (like The Leader of the House or The Master of the Rolls). Pollett would wear the title very well. A big blue-eyed boy in a good suit, nice smile, urbane manner, nice light-brown voice and hair, unruffled, his career ahead of him.

Closing the meeting, Lord Ramsbottom thanked the Banality for "at least being here" (to applause, which I am ashamed to say I joined in) and then pulled out his own left-hook to the ribs: "as usual, the problem is the gulf between policy and its implementation".

What policy was he talking about? The policy painstakingly written by minions in those rule-books real men never read, or the real policy made on the fly by Blair, Blunkett, Reid and the rest of them, summed up in the word "tough". That's all the policy the Home Office and its contractors need, and they implement it perfectly.

Posted by Bob Hughes on Friday, July 13 2007

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