Tania Mathias is MP for Twickenham.
In my years working as a refugee doctor and a therapeutic counsellor I have witnessed the incredible harm one human can inflict on another through torture.
I know from first-hand experience the value of medical evidence in helping survivors prove what happened to them, but the Home Office response to this evidence can be lamentable.
Today, the charity Freedom from Torture has exposed gross failings in the handling by asylum caseworkers of expert medical evidence of torture.
As an MP, I have come across the impact of poor Home Office decision-making in asylum claims, and I have had to personally intervene to make sure that asylum seekers are treated fairly.
From my clinical experience I understand how hard it can be for survivors of torture to talk about what they have been through, often because of the shame and humiliation they feel. Hidden scars in the mind can make them feel as dislocated from their own skin as they do from their communities.
Many walk around like ghosts, with their spirits broken. This has a detrimental impact of their family and community – thus, the torture of one person can affect many more people.
But I have seen the love of life return, and I have seen rehabilitation. I know how important it is to give every opportunity for people interacting with a survivor of torture to detect what has happened to them, identify their suffering, and address their needs.
This can be seriously impeded for survivors who arrive in the UK seeking sanctuary via our asylum system. It is this context which concerns me most at the moment.
Tonight I am proud to host in Parliament the launch of Freedom from Torture’s flagship “Proving Torture” project. The charity runs one of the most renowned forensic torture documentation services in the world, and I have held it in high esteem since my own medical training.
Freedom from Torture has just released an important research report investigating 50 cases of Home Office mishandling of medical evidence of torture.
Most shocking for me is the finding that medical evidence provided by independent, specialist doctors is being undermined, mistreated or even dismissed altogether by asylum caseworkers, often because they prefer their own lay speculation on clinical matters.
Doctors in the UK receive a minimum of five years training, as well as continual professional development and further support to specialise. From the beginning, the principles of independence, objectivity and professionalism are instilled in us.
When making a clinical assessment, we do not simply believe what we are told by a patient, instead we carefully weigh up the evidence before us in light of our medical training and experience. Doctors preparing reports for legal processes do so as independent expert witnesses, with duties to the court.
This also applies to independent medical reports documenting physical and/or psychological evidence of torture for use in asylum claims. All the reports produced by Freedom from Torture are written in line with UN-endorsed standards and require the clinician to provide an independent expert opinion on the consistency between the evidence and the claimant’s account of torture.
In 74 per cent of the cases in Freedom from Torture’s research, Home Office caseworkers substituted their own opinion for that of the expert clinician, despite a very clear Home Office policy telling them not to do this.
I am very troubled to think that these sorts of practices force torture survivors into long legal appeals, prolonging their psychological torment both from not being believed and the overwhelming fear that they will be forced back into the hands of their torturers.
If the devastating human impact of this poor practice is not enough, it is also costly. Too many Home Office decisions are having to be corrected by judges – at considerable cost to British tax payers.
In 76 per cent of cases in the research for which the appeal outcome was known to Freedom from Torture, the immigration judge upheld the asylum claim. This compares with the average success rate in asylum appeals of 30 per cent. Clearly something very wrong is happening to these cases inside the Home Office.
The good news is that this situation can be fixed easily and cheaply. The Home Office has a strong policy in place advising caseworkers how to handle medical evidence of torture and recognising the expertise and impartiality of Freedom from Torture doctors.
The problem is deficient implementation. We can hardly blame the caseworkers – the Home Office designed a specific training course to help them but it was never launched.
Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, should respond to Freedom from Torture’s damning report by ordering the immediate roll out of this training to all asylum caseworkers as the first step in a part of a package of remedial measures.
This will benefit both torture survivors who need our protection and taxpayers scandalised to learn that the Home Office is relying on expensive appeals to sort out these problems instead of fixing them at source.
Home Office staff cannot be allowed to dismiss the views of clinical experts in these ways, especially when human lives are hanging in the balance.