Previous Section Index Home Page

20 Nov 2007 : Column 44WH—continued

The lack of accountability pervades every level of policy and practice. Today’s debate is my humble attempt to try to shed some light on the process and to bring some accountability to it.

20 Nov 2007 : Column 45WH

Dr. Palmer: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. She will agree, I think, that there are two separate issues. One is whether the detention of children is ever justified. The other is how they are treated during the period of detention, if there is one. Having spoken to many constituents about the issue, I know that there is a certain acceptance that a short period of detention may sometimes be necessary rather than simply releasing the child, with all the risks that that might entail. However, there is overwhelming support for the greatest possible care for the children during the short period for which they might be detained. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the issue.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. When the matter originally came before Parliament, there was a consensus that detaining the family for one or two days might be necessary as part of the process of removal. However, no one taking part in that debate—some hon. Members who are here today were present then—ever envisaged children being detained for three months or beyond. No one ever envisaged that periods of detention would be so long.

I turn to what the Government are doing. I would not want it to be thought that the Government had paid no attention to lobbyists. First, the Minister for Borders and Immigration made a welcome statement about the need to incorporate a code of practice on the treatment of children as we rolled out the borders legislation. That statement was greeted with some gratitude by those who had lobbied on the issue.

Let me set out the Government’s position on some of the issues that I raised this morning. First is the question of the reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A question was tabled about the subject in July and the immigration Minister responded. He said:

The Government justify the reservation in the name of immigration control. We come back to the media and polling pressures—and the political pressure. In the end, a robust and sustainable system of immigration control, which is what Members from all parties want, has to be a system that the community as a whole, including even the asylum-seeking community, believe is firm but fair. A system of immigration control that is chaotic, badly run and contains a deeply flawed approach to vulnerable people such as children, will never achieve a consensus, and it will continue to be problematic. In his written answer, the Minister also said:

That was a welcome statement. However, Ministers have also said things that were not quite so welcome. For instance, in a debate on asylum seekers in Westminster Hall in March 2007, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised the question of the detention of children. The Minister said:

What is the Minister for Borders and Immigration saying but that children are being detained because of misbehaviour by their parents? I urge the Minister for the Home Department to read again the relevant UN convention. It is quite wrong and contrary to best national practice that children should be detained or punished as punishment for the behaviour of their parents, but that is what the immigration Minister said in March 2007.

In response to efforts in debates on the UK Borders Act 2007 in October to get further protection for children, Ministers spoke about the problem of judicial review, saying that trying to give asylum-seeking children the protection of children’s legislation would

The Minister for Borders and Immigration said:

I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years, representing a part of the country with one of the largest numbers of immigration, refugee and asylum seeker cases. No one knows better than I do about vexatious judicial review applications or deplores them more than I do. They are a waste of time and hold up false hope to my constituents, who all too often have to find money out of their own pockets to pay for applications that are going nowhere. When I see that they are going nowhere, it is now my practice to ring the solicitor and ask, “Where exactly are you going with this?”

I do not believe in giving false hope to constituents, and deplore the fact that some of the poorest and most marginalised constituents have to find hundreds of pounds to pay for what are essentially legal delaying devices. If there is a problem with vexatious judicial review applications, however, the Government must deal with it, and not use it as an excuse not to meet the spirit and letter of their obligations to children. One understands the point made about jails, but it does not justify the wholesale abrogation of this country’s obligations under the convention on the rights of the child.

Another part of the Government’s response, on which many people have lobbied, is the pilot project on whether there are alternatives to detention. Apparently, those in the pilot are in supported family accommodation in a hotel and are being helped to work towards voluntary return. Families are expected to stay within the pilot scheme for eight weeks. It is too early to say how it is going. Worth while as the pilot is, however, it does not help children in detention at the moment, there is no indication of how it has reduced, or will reduce, the number of such children, there is no information on the criteria for entry into the pilot scheme, and there is no sign of how it will be independently evaluated. Although the pilot is welcome, one would like to see more transparency and a hope of independent evaluation.

20 Nov 2007 : Column 47WH

Furthermore, as part of the Government’s response, we have a report, entitled “Review of UKIS Family Removals Processes”. It was commissioned by Dave Roberts and written by Judith Evans. I do not know if either of them is in the Chamber today. If they are, I hope that they will not take this personally, but I found it a bizarre and inappropriate document. It talks about putting the welfare of the child at the centre of the removal process, but that seems to amount to the idea that, as part of the removal process, immigration officers should keep a particular eye on the child. It does not talk about referrals. The report states that officials

Let us stop and think about that. Officials bang on someone’s door at 8 am—they have said that they will not knock on people’s doors before then—and a named official watches the child to see how they react to having their door knocked down and their mother dragged off to detention. What is the point of that, other than to make a token and derisory concession to the need to put the welfare of the child at the centre of our approach?

The report makes an even better recommendation. Obviously, the people who wrote it have read the same things as I have about how frightened and traumatised the children are by the process of being dragged away to detention, so they have thought very hard about what can be done about the psychological impact on children and proposed that the uniform of immigration officers be changed. They seem to be saying that what is frightening the children is the fact that the uniforms are navy blue or black and suggesting that they should be a pale colour—maybe pink or lilac! The idea that a child will be less traumatised by having their door kicked down and being dragged off to detention for an indefinite period by officers wearing a pink uniform rather than a black one has no place in an official Home Office report. Even when I was in the Home Office, which is now 25 years ago, we could have done better than that. It seems to me that the report was produced to address the widespread concern about the conditions in which such children are held, but it does not address the relevant points.

I know that hon. Friends involved closely with this issue wish to speak, so in conclusion, may I say that I am very concerned about the figures for children in detention? In particular, I was concerned by the response to a parliamentary question tabled in July by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who asked the Secretary of State:

If a child is to be kept beyond 28 days, the case is meant to be referred to a Minister, although no Minister has yet turned down such a request. The Minister replied:

If we are serious about the welfare of children, at the very least we ought to keep centrally figures available on a monthly basis on the number of children we are holding beyond 28 days. Whatever a person’s view on
20 Nov 2007 : Column 48WH
immigration control, it is not acceptable that we are keeping children beyond 28 days—in one case that I have raised with Ministers, for three months, in another, 112 days—and that those figures are not kept centrally. If one thing comes out of this debate, I hope that it will be a commitment from Ministers that from now on they will look at their record keeping on children and unaccompanied minors in detention. In particular, they ought to be able to provide Members, on request, with the number of children being held beyond 28 days.

We also need to do some really robust research into whether detaining families with children is necessary. The argument is that if we do not detain them, they will abscond. People assert that that is not the case. However, I am yet to see comprehensive research that proves it one way or the other. Above all, however, I put it to Ministers that reports that suggest changing the colour of uniforms are derisory. If Ministers are taking seriously the trauma that children go through, the Government need to commit themselves to bringing down the number of children in detention. How many times do international organisations, children’s pressure groups, Her Majesty’s inspectorate and the commissioner for children have to raise the point that the Government must bring down that number?

I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) said; there might be occasional cases when a child has to be kept in detention for a few days. But the fact that increasing numbers of children are being detained for increasing periods, and that Ministers cannot say at any given time how many are being held for longer than 28 days, simply is not acceptable. I accept that the front page of the Daily Express will not be calling, five days a week, for action on children in detention. It is also perfectly true that nobody ever made their career in government by building a fair and humane system of immigration; one builds a career by the constant rolling-out of crackdowns, toughness, fresh initiatives and so on. However, I put it to Ministers that in 2007, it is time for one of the wealthiest liberal democracies in the world to comply with international standards on the detention of children. As other Members have said, it makes a mockery of our children’s rights legislation that children in immigration detention continue to be held in such numbers for so long and in such conditions. I hope that Ministers will take on board some of what is said this morning, and that we can make some progress on the issue.

Mr. Steen rose—

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): I have two Members standing, and I intend to call both of you if I can. However, you are both facing Clocks, and I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.25 am.

10.10 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I have only two points to make. Before I do so, however, I want to say that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Her speech was robust, compassionate and incisive, and the Minister will need a good quarter of an hour to deal with her points. I shall not cover the
20 Nov 2007 : Column 49WH
same area, but I thank her for raising the matter. It is constantly referred to in the Chamber, but not properly addressed.

My first point is on why the immigration service is so secretive. I suggest to the Minister that a group of Members—I should be one of them—might like to spend a day or two at the ports of entry, seeing what the immigration service does, particularly with regard to unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers and such like. I do not think that many hon. Members have seen what goes on there. I have joined the parliamentary police scheme, but I am halted every time I want to go to the immigration service, because it is outside the police’s control.

I should have admitted to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that I was in her constituency last Thursday on a police raid in a sauna.

Jeremy Corbyn: Were you in the sauna?

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Or were you part of the police team?

Mr. Steen: I was part of the police operation.

I have an idea of some of the problems that the hon. Lady mentioned, and some hon. Members who are present, and certainly some active members of the all-party trafficking of women and children group, which I chair, would be much more friendly and well disposed towards the Government if they could see what was going on.

Secondly, the all-party group had the director of social work for Manchester before it about a month ago, and she referred to a different sort of detention, which it will be useful to mention. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are usually put in the care of the local authority, which is supposed to involve detention and to be a safe place, because the constant refrain from all people in positions of authority is that we must put children in a safe place. I saw a child walking along Oxford street when I was on patrol with two policemen, and they took the child, who they thought was 13, into the care of the police station in St. Marylebone, because they believed that it was a place of safety. If local authority care is a place of safety, why do so many children disappear from local authority care? The director of social work in Manchester said that some children who come into care in Manchester disappear within minutes, and that others do so within hours.

I raise the matter only because the hon. Lady raised the issue of detention. If detention is too open, the children disappear, but if we have it as she would, there is criticism, too, because it would be incarceration. I do not quite know how she would redress that balance, but at the moment too many children disappear. In a recent report from the Home Office, the number of children who were thought to be trafficked was 380, and about 190 of those, who were in the care of local authorities, disappeared.

I also want to mention some other numbers. I have only the 2004 figures, because the figures are up the creek, as we know, but we are talking about 55 unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, 55 from
20 Nov 2007 : Column 50WH
Somalia, 50 from Vietnam, 55 from Iran, 35 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 35 from Iraq, 35 from China, 25 from Eritrea, 20 from Uganda and 20 from Ethiopia. Those figures are for a three-month period only, so an enormous number of children come into this country unaccompanied. Some will end up in detention, some will end up in the care of the local authority, and an awful lot will go missing.

The Government do not have their hands on the problem, because when the children disappear they are never found. Many children from China “disappear”—they do not, of course, disappear, because an aunt, uncle or friend probably finds them. However, the number of unaccompanied children either in detention or in the care of the local authority is increasing. The numbers are about 3,000 to 4,000 a year, so it is a big problem.

10.16 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I very much appreciate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) taking up the cause, the way in which she spoke and the great deal of research that she obviously undertook to present her case. It was a very fine contribution, which the House should note.

It is significant that the three Labour Members speaking today all have neighbouring constituencies: Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, Hackney, South and Shoreditch, and Islington, North.

Mr. Steen: Mine is not.

Jeremy Corbyn: I know about north Devon.

Mr. Steen: It is south Devon.

Jeremy Corbyn: I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. We all know about south Devon, but my point is about Labour Members.

We are involved in the subject because we have multicultural and multi-ethnic constituencies, and immigration issues are real, serious and demanding of their Members. As the MP for Islington, North, I take up a large number of immigration and asylum cases all the time. Although there is nothing wrong with having a public debate about immigration, I appeal to the media to have a debate occasionally about human rights, justice and the nasty underside of immigration law and control. It is easy to get a headline saying, “There is too much immigration. We must control it. There are too many problems,” but the other side of the issue is the incredible contribution that migrants have made to our economy and standard of life. We would not have much of a health service, or, indeed, many other vital services, if there had not been immigration over the past 40 years.

Next Section Index Home Page