By Sam Tobin
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain should only hold people in immigration detention for a maximum of 28 days, a public inquiry concluded on Tuesday, after finding some detainees had been subjected to inhumane treatment, including the use of force or dangerous methods of restraint.
About 20,000 people are currently detained in one of seven immigration removal centres, awaiting either deportation or permission to enter Britain.
There is currently no limit on how long someone can be detained, though it will usually be unlawful to keep someone in detention if they cannot be removed within a reasonable time.
However, some detainees at Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport in southeast England were held for up to two years, the inquiry heard.
Britain's Illegal Migration Act, which comes into force later this month, will allow ministers to decide for how long a person can be reasonably detained.
Tuesday's report comes as Britain's ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour party spar over the issue of immigration, which is set to be a major battleground in a national election expected next year.
The inquiry was prompted by a BBC documentary which revealed that staff employed by outsourcing company G4S, which ran Brook House, repeatedly physically and verbally abused detainees.
Inquiry chair Kate Eves found 19 incidents between April and August 2017, which she said amounted to a breach of detainees' right to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment.
She found that force was used against detainees too often and that "dangerous techniques" of restraining individuals were used by staff.
"The culture amongst G4S staff at Brook House was at times described to me by witnesses as 'toxic'. I have reached the same conclusion," Eves said.
"I have rejected the narrative portrayed by both the Home Office and G4S in their evidence that the events at Brook House were primarily the result of a small minority of G4S staff."
A Home Office spokesperson said the abuse of detainees at Brook House in 2017 was unacceptable, but that the government had made significant improvements since then and would endeavour "to ensure these events never happen again".
A G4S spokesperson said the company was "appalled" by the conduct of some of its former employees in 2017 and apologised.
The G4S spokesperson said the company no longer runs Brook House, which is now run by Serco, or any other immigration removal centres.
Lewis Kett, from the law firm Duncan Lewis which represented six former detainees, said the government should implement the report's recommendations to "prevent more needless suffering".
Medical Justice, a charity which supports people in immigration removal centres, called on the government to phase out detention and consider alternatives.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made "stopping the boats" a priority, with many asylum seekers arriving in Britain from Europe across the Channel.
But his government's flagship policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda has failed to get off the ground, with a legal challenge being heard by the Supreme Court next month.
(Reporting by Sam Tobin; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Christina Fincher)