The Banality of Theresa

Theresa May's past work - invasive and xenophobic surveillance programs and harmful detention centers - is likely to continue under her leadership. She is far from a feminist revolution or champion of social justice.

July 14. 2016

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The Banality of Theresa

Theresa May's past work - invasive and xenophobic surveillance programs and harmful detention centers - is likely to continue under her leadership. She is far from a feminist revolution or champion of social justice.

During the Conservative Party leadership race, as other names dropped out leaving Theresa May to become Britain’s new Prime Minister, numerous opinion pieces were written about her cool head, strong moral values, her appropriateness to “steer the ship” and talk of a coming “femocracy”.

While a challenge to the ‘old boys club’ of UK politics is a welcome change, there is a danger in foregrounding aspects of a politicians’ identity – using it as the basis of a coming ‘revolution’ or “new breed of leadership candidate”.

Maya Goodfellow, writing for huck magazine highlighted:

“The idea itself speaks to gender stereotypes: it presumes that women are automatically more likely to do good for “their own kind”. This thinking springs from the same reasoning that women are natural peacekeepers who should be sent in to put out the fires lit by male politicians…”

This process leads commentators to cheer on the coming ‘feminist revolution’, without awareness of intersectionality and the negative impact on many women, particularly women of color that will still emerge from May’s leadership.

The descriptions of professionalism and ‘steel’ are uncomfortable in May’s context given the impact of her political career felt in London’s boroughs, schools and workplaces. While the overt cases of xenophobia and racism in the wake of the Brexit vote are shocking enough, we need to look harder at how they are reinforced or supplemented by official policy. To begin to examine the coming impact and challenges of May’s leadership requires taking a look back. This is not just about Theresa May but a harmful architecture, constructed by policy that is likely to both continue and be strengthened.

Detention, Immigration and Deportation

A sense of fairness must always be at the heart of our immigration system – including for those we are removing from the UK.” – Home Office spokesperson, 2015

One of the most pronounced sites where the physical impact of official policy on black and brown bodies or those deemed ‘unwelcome’ is seen is in detention centers (or Immigration Removal Centers in their official title).

January this year saw the release of the extensive 349-page ‘Shaw Review’ (Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons). According to the report, the total number in detention (whether asylum seekers, ex-offenders, or those deemed without a legal right to stay in the UK) was at that point over 3,000, with around 30,000 per year.

Shaw noted:

“[Despite] growth in the use of detention, the places in which immigration detainees are held are so little known to the public at large, and the policies by which they are run are subject to little informed debate outside a small number of dedicated interest groups and an equally small number of Parliamentarians.”

“It is regrettable that the Home Office does not do more to encourage academic and media interest in immigration detention. Indeed, I think its reluctance to do so is counter-productive – encouraging speculative or ill-informed journalism, while inhibiting the healthy oversight that is one of the most effective means of ensuring the needs of those in detention are recognized and of preventing poor practice or abuse from taking hold.”

Shaw’s analysis and recommendations mirrored findings of a previous report, released in March 2015. The Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Refugees and the APPG on Migration found that the UK systematically exceeded detention time limits found elsewhere in the EU and called for a 28-day limit rather than the indefinite limit at present. They found detention was used disproportionately frequently where other methods could be adopted and argued if used, detention should be for the shortest possible time.

The lack of transparency and accountability within these centers has had a more harmful impact beyond the lack of informed public debate where it has meant little awareness of degrading or inhumane treatment, loss of life or the detention of torture survivors, people with severe mental illness or unaccompanied children.

A three-month undercover Channel 4 investigation into Yarl’s Wood detention center, located on the outskirts of Clapham, Bedfordshire, exposed the abuse of women detainees to a wider audience. While figures implicated were forced to feign shock and promise solutions, then-shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper in no uncertain terms described it as “state-sanctioned abuse of women on the home secretary’s watch…

A dossier compiled by Women Against Rape and Black Women’s Rape Action Project published in June last year contained hundreds of complaints of sexual abuse and mistreatment at the center over a decade. A Ugandan rape survivor was retraumatized by a male guard entering her room when she was changing, several women reported strip searching and suicide watch was purposefully used to humiliate and harass detainees, while some reported that guards hinted that cooperating with sexual propositions would help them get released.

The farming out of responsibility to private security firms (Yarl’s Wood is run primarily by Serco with G4S staff taking an NHS England contract to cover health services) has led to severe consequences with the further challenge of who ultimately is responsible and accountable.

In the wake of Channel 4’s investigation, promises of further investigation and changes were made. As recently as Thursday 7th July however, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) said while there has been “some significant progress”, more than 35% of recommendations from the chief inspector of prisons have yet to be implemented. A new £8.8m a year contract with Serco came into effect in April 2015, with the NAO declaring lessons of previous inspections were not reflected in it.

Another controversial security firm, G4S saw its responsibility in the immigration removal architecture brought into serious question through legal proceedings against its staff. On 12 October 2010, 46 year old Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on a British Airways flight during deportation. Hand-cuffed behind his back and bent forward towards his knees, the court heard during a six-week trial how fellow passengers said they had heard Mubenga cry out: “I can’t breathe”. The staff were later cleared by a jury.

In the wake of the acquittal on 16 December, the Institute of Race Relations vice-chair Frances Webber said:

“Should we be surprised at the verdicts? No. In all the dozens of deaths in custody involving undue force researched by the IRR over the last twenty-five years, no one has ever been convicted of homicide. And where an inquest jury, after seeing and hearing incontrovertible evidence, has brought in a verdict of unlawful killing (which has happened at least nine times), heaven and earth are moved to reverse the verdict and/or to ensure that the [Crown Prosecution Service] does not bring a prosecution to those involved.”

These private security firms have a history of racist and violent staff, lack of accountability and monumental failure in duty of care to those in their custody, leading to serious physical and mental harm and in some cases death. Their use to police the borders and to remove those deemed unwelcome by the Home Office is done in the name of the “UK public”, without informed debate and anything resembling consent.

Fraser Paterson of Dover-based migrants and detainees charity Samphire, previously highlighted that the shrugging of responsibility reached across the immigration detention infrastructure:

“…I was told that the Prison Service cannot question people’s detention – no matter how young. The Prison Service, as with the private detention service operators, are in the battle for contracts. It’s for the Home Office to choose who to detain, it’s for the contractor to hold the keys. The fact that no safeguard in detention operates as it should doesn’t factor into the equation – their existence gives everyone enough peace of mind to feel they’re doing a good job.”

Prevent, Surveillance and ‘Soft Borders’ in Schools.

In recent years, Britain has seen the expansion of an architecture of surveillance officially aimed at countering terrorism and tackling extremism. The controversial Prevent strategy has disproportionately focused on British Muslims, extending soft borders into schools.

The onus has been put on staff to watch for signs of radicalization and potential extremism in children as young as four, often armed with limited training. A counter-terrorism software package called ‘Impero’ was piloted in 16 locations across the UK last year. It contained a keyword-detection tool for use by teachers on school computers with the intent of monitoring pupils to identify patterns of online behavior that would suggest a risk of radicalization or extremism.

Muslims who have been critical and have campaigned against these measures have been smeared as ISIS apologists, with media coverage overlooking that:

“[T]he NUS, teachers’ union, council of mosques in Walthamstow and even academics in universities have also said Prevent within schools is something that has serious ramifications not just for Muslim kids but eventually all kids in general”

The process of examining Muslim pupil’s behavior and thoughts with the express purpose of identifying potential extremists and signs of radicalization risks worsening feelings of alienation and division, precisely those feelings extremists seek to foster and exploit online.

Shaheen Sattar, writing in the Independent, notes that May was given the 2015 Islamophobe of the Year award by the Islamic Human Rights Commission. She highlights how the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill 2015 and the Prevent strategy have contributed to framing terrorism as a ‘Muslim problem’ which has challenged the sense of identity of British citizens:

“We used to think “British Muslim” wasn’t a contradiction in terms. Now we fear the two words can never seem compatible in the eyes of the white British public or, increasingly, in the eyes of the Muslim community.”

While the sharpest impacts of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism measures have been felt in Muslim communities, a cornerstone of May’s tenure at the Home Office was the Investigatory Powers Bill, which seeks to make provision about “the interception of communications, equipment interference and the acquisition and retention of communications data, bulk personal datasets and other information” as well as the material held as a result and the establishment of an Investigatory Powers Commissioner and other Judicial Commissioners.

Since dubbed ‘the Snooper’s Charter’, critics argue it will further erode the right to privacy and endanger journalists and their sources. There have been questions raised over the robustness of oversight that will be contained within the bill based on the fear that access to internet search history and personal mobile devices, including cameras and microphones, could become an unwarranted norm.

The control over the definition of ‘extremism’ has already seen political dissent such as Occupy, student protests and climate issues included in a City of London Police presentation under the tag “Domestic Extremism”. It was part of an initiative dubbed Project Fawn aimed at preparing nursery and school staff for the possibility that London could be hit by attacks such as Charlie Hebdo or the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis.

Kevin Blowe of Netpol (Network for Police Monitoring) made the connection between counter-extremism strategies and the policing of dissent:

“Programs like the government’s Prevent strategy overwhelmingly target and stigmatize Muslim communities, but as Project Fawn shows, they also provide plenty of scope to include almost any group of political activists that the police dislike or consider an inconvenience.”

With the evidence of mass surveillance keeping us safe having been questioned for a long time and with figures like US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper using well-worn arguments to shore up the need for strengthened powers, there is a more challenging climate in which to pass these policies.

With Theresa May as Prime Minister it is likely that this expansion will continue, demanding further resistance. Hints at what may be on the horizon can be found in an account by a former adviser to Nick Clegg, Alex Dziedzan:

“[She] is the toughest negotiator I have ever seen and she was the most formidable person we ever came across in government without a shadow of a doubt. I expect her to be much more forceful in delivering her policies than Cameron ever has been.”

Behind descriptions of a cool-headed exterior then, hides a formidable authoritarian, whose past work has, and will likely continue to strengthen an invasive and xenophobic architecture of surveillance alongside harmful and largely unknown detention centers.


To learn more about detention centres, readers can look to:

Migrants’ Rights Network

Unlocking Detention

Freed Voices – a group of experts-by-experience who have collectively lost over 20 years to immigration detention

The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees



Image: Policy Exchange

July 14. 2016