14 December 2020

Brook House inquiry: Witnesses could be protected from prosecution

14 December 2020

Witnesses who give evidence at a public inquiry into allegations of abuse at a scandal-hit detention centre could be granted protection from prosecution.

The Attorney General and the Home Secretary have been asked to consider protection against self-incrimination for those who speak out during the proceedings, a preliminary hearing of the Brook House inquiry was told on Monday.

Counsel for the inquiry, Cathryn McGahey QC, said: “In order to avoid the risk of witnesses declining to answer for fear of self-incrimination, the chair has requested undertakings from both the Attorney General and the Home Secretary.”

She added: “The inquiry is awaiting the Attorney and Home Secretary’s decisions.”

The undertakings, if granted, would mean no evidence a person gives before the inquiry would be used in criminal proceedings or to support “certain adverse immigration decisions”.

Launched last year, the inquiry is investigating what happened at the then G4S-run immigration removal centre, following a BBC Panorama programme which broadcast undercover footage in September 2017 showing alleged assaults, humiliation and verbal abuse of detainees by officers.

In order to avoid the risk of witnesses declining to answer for fear of self-incrimination, the chair has requested undertakings from both the Attorney General and the Home Secretary

After the broadcast, two former detainees – identified only as MA and BB – successfully argued that a full independent investigation into “systemic and institutional failures” was needed “to ensure fact-finding, accountability and lesson-learning”.

A police investigation was carried out but no prosecutions were brought.

The inquiry will look at events at the detention centre between April and August 2017, the claims made by MA and BB, as well as Home Office and G4S policies.

Lawyers representing detainees had previously raised concerns over the requests for evidence given by witnesses to not be used against them in court.

Stephanie Harrison QC urged against “wide ranging blanket undertakings”, particularly for anyone working for public authorities who may indicate they would not co-operate with the inquiry without privilege against self-incrimination and highlighted the public interest of the inquiry as well as the “need to ensure those who have committed wrongdoing are held accountable”.

She added that it would “send out the wrong message to the public that any criminal conduct is being either not properly investigated or condoned”.

On Monday, Ms Harrison said her clients want the inquiry to consider whether there had been “systemic failings” that go beyond incidents which occurred at Brook House and whether there had been a failure to properly apply detention law and policy.

Inquiry chairman Kate Eves reiterated calls for anyone who was held in the detention centre to come forward with information about the conditions there, and will rule on the scope of the inquiry at a later date.

The inquiry plans to start taking witness statements in January and hear evidence at oral hearings from mid-June.

Fourteen members of G4S staff were dismissed or resigned in the wake of the BBC broadcast and the Home Office asked the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) to carry out an investigation.

But there were concerns this was being conducted behind closed doors, with G4S officers not being required to give evidence if they did not want to.

A High Court judge then ruled a public inquiry was necessary to make sure witnesses gave evidence – a decision the Home Office failed in a bid to challenge.

Both the Home Office and G4S have pledged to co-operate fully with the inquiry, which has so far received more than 24,000 documents.

The National Audit Office found that G4S made £14.3 million in profit from Brook House between 2012 and 2018.

The private security firm has since stopped running Brook House as well as Tinsley House, which are both next to Gatwick Airport in West Sussex, with outsourcing giant Serco since taking over.

The chief inspector of prisons found there was “no culture of abuse” among current staff at Brook House during his latest visit but warned there was still a raft of improvements that needed to be made.

Anyone with information for the inquiry can call 0800 181 4363 or email [email protected].

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