Signing support: lessons from Manchester


Yesterday on the blog, we wrote about the importance of preparing in case of being detained, and the different things you can think about and get ready in case the worst happens to you.  One of the most important aspects of this is having a system in place so that if you are detained, people know straight away and start taking action for you.


This was what we discussed in our recent workshop in Manchester, on preparing in case of detention, where members of United for Change, Manchester Migrant Solidarity, Lesbian Immigrant Support Group and First Wednesday and others got together to tackle facing up to what can the most terrifying aspect of the asylum and immigration process: indefinite immigration detention.

Signing support

Most people who have applied for asylum or other immigration status and have not had a positive decision have to regularly report at their local Home Office reporting centre or a police station. At every reporting visit, the person is at risk of detention, particularly if their application has been refused, which they may not know until they go and report.  Read more about detention in our Toolkit here.

They might have to go and report/sign every week, every fortnight, every month. At our Manchester meeting, people mentioned only having to sign every six months because of staff shortages at the reporting centre.

Some people phone a friend when they are entering the reporting centre, with instructions for what to do and who to contact if they are detained. If the friend does not get a call within an hour or two to say they are safe, the friend can call their lawyer and/or support group if they have one.

In some areas, local support groups have set up systems to help with this. The person going to report will check-in with the group first, who keep a record of everyone’s contact details and emergency instructions of what to do if they do not come out.

A system like this can save valuable time: friends/supporters can start finding out exactly where the person is, what has happened, and what can be done to help straight away.

A signing support system also means that the person going to sign knows people are looking out for them, and that there is a plan in place if things go wrong and they are detained. This can reduce the psychological burden of reporting/signing at the Home Office.

Lessons from Manchester

We asked the following questions at our ‘preparing in case of detention’ workshop in Manchester, at which several local asylum/migrant support groups were present. The answers will depend on the group and they way they work, and sometimes what came up were more questions!

1) If your group wants to set up a signing support system, how will you keep a record of when everyone has to sign/report? How will this be kept updated?

  • If the group has (for example) a monthly meeting, at that meeting people with a reporting/signing event before the next meeting write their name up, and date, time of when they have to report
  • every member of the group fills in a form when they join with basic details such as Home Office Reference number, phone number, name/number of lawyer. You also put when you have to report at Home Office, and must update this whenever it changes.

The question was raised – what about if someone is picked up in a home raid/business raid/stop and search? What systems can be put in place for checking in, between reporting dates and group meetings? There was discussion of how Whatsapp groups could be useful for this, though people’s lack of phone credit can mean they can’t always use this. It was agreed that this level of checking-in was quite resource heavy, so difficult for many groups to do, but is a great idea if it can be achieved.

2) You will need basic information about the stage someone’s case is at, if you’re supporting them when they go and sign. How will your store this information? Will you keep a copy of their documents? If so, where?

  • One suggestion was that a hard (paper) copy of the important documents should be kept at a trusted person’s house.  There was a lively discussion of whether it was better to be the house of someone with immigration status/British citizenship (because their house isn’t a target for Home Office immigration raids); or whether it was better to be someone who is currently going through the legal process and is also at risk of detention – as some people at risk of detention feel more comfortable sharing information and being supported by someone in the same situation.
  • Online storage was also suggested – using ‘cloud’ storage such as Dropbox, or Google Drive, to which only certain people have access.

3) How will the group find out if someone has been detained?

  • Sometimes there are group coordinators responsible for checking who is due to report that week and for checking in with that person first – that might be committee members of the group, or long-term volunteers. Other groups use a buddy system, so that one person is responsible for one other person.
  • It’s also important that the onus isn’t just on the coordinator or buddy – if you are due to sign that day, send a reminder message to the person responsible for you.

If this system breaks down, you won’t know someone has been detained till they call you, and they may not be able to do that for several days by which point a lot of valuable time has been lost.

4) Where are people detained in the short-term (if picked up in a raid, or detained at a signing/report event?)? Where are people taken after that?

If detained at signing/reporting, someone will usually be held at the reporting centre. In Greater Manchester, this is Dallas Court in Salford. In other areas, this will be the local Home Office branch or sometimes at a local police station.

People in Greater Manchester are usually held for a short time at Pennine House, the short-term holding centre at Manchester Airport. People can only be held at a short-term centre for up to seven days, and then will be moved to a longer-term detention centre.


It’s important to know where people will be held in the short-term, and where they can be taken in the long-term. The group should also know the contact details of the visitors group responsible for each detention centre, so they can get in contact as soon as it’s needed.

5) You will need to have agreed an action plan in advance, which is put into place if the person is detained. How will you draw up these action plans? How will you check in now and again to make sure the action plan hasn’t changed?

  • You are unlikely to want to discuss individual action plans with the whole group – maybe with just one person or a smaller group – though the idea of the action plan can be discussed with everyone together.
  • This is an important conversation to have, but it’s difficult as it makes people think about the possibility of being detained. How can you open up that conversation in a safe, supported way? People may try and avoid having this conversation, but if they are then detained and there is no plan in place, this can mean vital time is lost.
  • Who would they want you to call if they were detained? Who needs to be informed? Are there things they need from their accommodation? Will they want visits? In this discussion, you can also talk about the importance of finding out about accessing legal advice in the detention centre, if their current lawyer (if they have) can no longer represent them.
  • The action plan should include what needs to happen about their legal case. For this, you will need to know what stage of the legal process they are at, and what their options are. You might find the Right to Remain Toolkit useful for this. You may need to talk through the person’s important legal documents – of which they, and someone else, should have a copy [see earlier post on preparing in case of detention here].

6) How will you deal with needing to speak to people (eg lawyer, housing provider) on someone else’s behalf?

  • To speak to a lawyer and often a housing provider, you will need a signed consent form that gives you permission to speak on the detained person’s behalf. It’s important to have these prepared and signed before someone is detained as it’s very difficult to arrange after it’s happened.
  • At our Manchester workshop, it was pointed out that if you don’t have this consent form, a lawyer won’t give you information but there’s nothing to stop you giving them information about the person, if they’ve asked you to do that.
  • Participants at our workshop pointed out the need to be persistent, to keep on at the lawyer, housing provider or other useful people if necessary – but let people get on with doing the job of helping your friend as well! If you ring them non-stop, they won’t be able to do this! Be clear what you are asking them to do (this is particularly the case if you are asking for an MP to get involved in the case, for example. Read more about that here.
  • It was also agreed that it’s important a support group know who is doing what – so you don’t have three people trying to contact the lawyer, or all of the group trying to contact the person in detention.  Talk to each other!

Read more about preparing in case of detention in yesterday’s blog post and in our Toolkit here



6 comments on “Signing support: lessons from Manchester

  1. Budge on

    Hi there,

    I’m a former/ongoing member of Bristol Signing Support (reporting is done at a police station, now relocated well outside Bristol in south Gloucestershire), and curious to know how many active signing support groups there are currently across the UK. Is anyone aware of other active groups?

    I think it’d be useful to get the various groups together to share strategies etc, and help other groups get set up

    • right-to-remain on

      That’s a great idea Budge – we were hoping to help something like this develop, as we do this through our training sessions on various legal support areas already (for example, when we run a workshop in Swansea, we share good ideas and strategies that we’ve heard from Glasgow, or Coventry, etc). We are aware of other active groups but I’m sure there will be others we don’t know about – and we’d like to know! We’ll be in touch…


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