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20 Nov 2007 : Column 50WH—continued

Another consideration is the treatment of individuals who have been denied the right to remain in this country and who have been threatened with, or are in the process of, removal, and the detention that is then carried out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I visited Yarl’s Wood, and we spent a lot of time there. We saw all its sections, had meetings with the staff and discussions with people who are held there—frankly, one must refer to them as inmates, because that is in reality what they are—and we looked at the whole place. Whatever the decorations, equipment or concerns of staff, the issue is that we lock children up. For the child to leave their parents to make
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or take a phone call, to go to the medical room or wherever else, they must go through a series of prison-style locked doors.

Children are very impressionable. Young children remember small things for the rest of their lives. All of us have photographic memories of certain instances that happened when we were three, four, five, six or seven years old—it is an impressionable age. I do not think that any of us was in detention at that age, and none of us went through that sort of experience, but that is the memory that we are imposing on a number of children through our policy. We should think seriously about that.

Ms Abbott: My hon. Friend and I visited Yarl’s Wood because of our ongoing concern about the problem. I must say that although many of the staff at Yarl’s Wood were pleasant and clearly trying to do their best, I was unimpressed with the medical officer, whom I think I met when my hon. Friend was in another part of the facility. When I raised with the medical officer the concerns that had been raised with me about medical treatment there, he was quite dismissive and refused to accept that there was a problem with people not being provided with proper treatment for malaria. In his attitude, manner and unwillingness to engage, he stood out from some of the other staff. He seemed to reflect the concerns that are raised over and over again about the quality of the medical treatment at Yarl’s Wood.

Jeremy Corbyn: I did hear some of that conversation, but not all of it. My hon. Friend raised those points. Children in detention should be under the protection of the Children Act 2004 and have access to full-quality national health service care and, if necessary, to social services protection, just like any other child in the country. I am not convinced that the reality of detaining children guarantees any of those things.

The campaigns on Yarl’s Wood are considerable. Local people have often complained about it and there have been many demonstrations outside it. There is a history of problems in its administration. There is a wider point, however. On 28 March 2006, the Refugee Council pointed out that more than 2,000 children a year are locked up by the UK Government for immigration purposes. It had launched a new campaign and stated:

I could not have put it better myself. This country is proud of being a signatory to the UN charter, the European convention on human rights, the 1951 Geneva convention, the convention on the rights of the child, torture conventions and all the others. They apply to us here, as well as to the demands that we make on people in other parts of the world.

Bail for Immigration Detainees, which has done good work, produced a handbook and press release on 2 July. The press release stated that children are being damaged by immigration detention because

I hope that the Minister will give us some hope that all children who are being detained will be subject to ministerial decision so that we know exactly how many are being detained and why. I also hope that she will consider the Swedish system of having a caseworker assigned to a family, going through the whole process with them as a supportive mechanism. Very few, if any, children are detained there, and I do not see why we cannot do the same in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington rightly referred to the statements made by Anne Owers, the former chief inspector of prisons. Like her, I know Anne Owers well and admire her work hugely. The fact that she made an unannounced visit to Yarl’s Wood some time ago, in February 2006, made her statements and expressed concerns about children in detention, should be taken seriously.

My final point has an international context, relating to UN conventions. I attend UN Human Rights Council meetings as a non-governmental observer and have taken part in a lot of activities surrounding them. Many people there fulminate about abuses of human rights around the world, and rightly so—I join in all that—but that also applies to us. The United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed its concern that

That statement was made some time ago, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concerns about the UK Borders Act 2007. It has stated:

We signed the convention on the rights of the child and pride ourselves on being a country that has democratic institutions and a robust defence of individual liberties and human rights. Detaining children defeats all those things. I appeal to the Minister to re-examine seriously the whole policy of detaining children and recognise the damage that it does to them. As a start, Ministers should know exactly how many children are detained at any one time and why, and they should have to give personal approval for that detention. That would show us to be taking seriously the rights and needs of children. I hope that we can move on to a system in which it is simply not necessary to detain children at all. We are damaging them, it is wrong and it is not morally correct.

10.27 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Olner, for calling me to give the first winding-up speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) not only on her speech but on using such parliamentary occasions in the most effective way possible—to highlight an
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ongoing area of Government policy that a Member regards as deficient, giving a Minister an opportunity to justify or, better still, alter and adjust it.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s broad observations about the party political context that underpins much of the debate on immigration and asylum. It is shocking that the leaders of some political parties in this country seem to regard polling evidence in marginal seats as the main determining factor in deciding policies that have a direct impact on people’s well-being. She mentioned the front page of the Daily Express, but it could have been any one of a number of papers—even the one that, until recently, was edited by the new chief spin doctor of the Conservative party. That paper takes an aggressive view of this area of policy and seems to put pressure on the Government and other political parties to respond in rather draconian terms, which often jars with the better and more liberal instincts of millions of people.

Ms Abbott: The problem with the current approach to immigration control is not just that it is draconian, which I personally deplore, but that it is wholly ineffective.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, because I wholeheartedly accept her point. We hear a huge amount of extremely tough talk from the Government—they are “cracking down” on aspects of immigration policy the whole time—yet it does not seem to have worked. If it had, they would manifestly no longer need to crack down, because their policy would have achieved their desired objective.

Most people would accept that there may be a need for transitional arrangements while people’s immigration and asylum applications are being processed. It may be that, for short periods of time, it is desirable not to separate children from their parents and that it is necessary to hold them in those circumstances. Most people, however, would wish their treatment to be entirely humane and that the atmosphere and surroundings in which they are kept are as close to a home and as far removed from a prison as possible.

I have three broad points to make. The first is about the Government not enforcing the UN convention on the rights of the child and about their desire to be seen as tough in this area. They seem to be concerned that anything that smacks of a UN-led, consensual, international approach would be seen as a sign of weakness. I do not know whether their position has changed, but I have a quote from a debate in the House of Lords, three years ago, in which the relevant Minister said that the Government believe that

Unless the Minister can tell us that the Government’s position has since changed, that quote provides the context for our considerations this morning. The Government seem to be saying that the rights of children in those circumstances take second place, and will do so indefinitely, to what they see as the benefits of having a strong system, and that the well-being of
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the child is somehow incompatible with having overall strength and resilience within the system. If that has changed, I am sure that the Minister will correct me and inform us more widely.

My second point follows on from a point that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made. I was pleased that she quoted my noble Friend Lord Avebury regarding the absence of published figures for children who have been detained for immigration purposes. I have done some research in this area, and there seems to be a reasonable consensus that the figure is about 2,000. It is extraordinary, however, that we do not have a reliable figure. I cannot believe that this is genuinely an area in which the costs of compiling that information are, as the Government would put it, disproportionate. There seem to be all kinds of Government statistics being compiled in all kinds of areas in which people might have only a passing interest in knowing the facts and figures, whereas this is a central area of public interest. It behoves the Government to do the research and make that information available.

I have tried hard to get an indication of the scale of the situation. According to the figures supplied to me, 540 children were released from detention centres in the last quarter of 2005, so the information is already two years out of date. That figure was an increase of 20 per cent. on the previous quarter. If those figures were representative, they would indicate rising numbers of children in the system and an upward trend over time. It is an extraordinary state of affairs that we have to speculate about this situation, which should be made transparent and obvious to anyone who takes an interest.

My third point is one that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) touched on. As a mature and reasonably enlightened liberal democracy, we should look to learn best practice from other countries. The hon. Gentleman talked about the caseworker system in Sweden. Having a caseworker who can act as an advocate, provide legal representation, be a voice and give guidance to a child in those circumstances would be a wholly progressive step, and the Government should consider it in greater detail.

The Government talk about their “Every Child Matters” campaign, but if that is to be anything other than a slightly trite slogan, it must encompass children who are not British children within the mainstream education system. It must mean that literally every child has a set of rights and that we have a duty and obligation to them. It is on that basis that my party supports the “No Place for a Child” campaign of Save the Children, the Refugee Council and Bail for Immigration Detainees, which calls for alternatives to child custodies, such as granting such people bail, or having them attend reporting centres or stay in supervised community accommodation. The campaign also proposes a host of other measures that might lead to a more satisfactory resolution to this vexed issue than that which the Government have so far managed to achieve.

10.35 am

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on her introduction to the debate. It might surprise her to know that I agree with a degree of her analysis of the problem. I part
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company with her and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), however, on the idea that the debate is being driven by the tabloid press and by political leaders running before the tabloid press. The wider issue of immigration levels has become a matter of genuine concern for communities all over the country, not just those that are represented by Labour Members, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out. It is therefore imperative that mainstream, moderate, democratic politicians address this issue, because if we do not, we leave the field clear for unpleasant, racist extremist parties. That would be the worst of all worlds.

I agree particularly with the hon. Lady’s points about the appalling inadequacy of the statistics on which public policy in this area should be based. She has clearly researched this area well, but I assure her that after two years of asking Home Office Ministers about statistics, facts and figures that I cannot believe that they do not know, I have a file in my office, which I am happy to share with her, full of answers containing phrases such as “this information is not collected centrally” and “this information can be collected only at disproportionate cost.” A lot of that information concerns people whom the Government have locked up, such as foreign prisoners, and whether they have been moved to immigration detention centres, as well as aspects of the asylum system. I am frequently torn between concluding that the Government really do not know those figures, which is appalling, or that they do know and are not telling me, which is equally appalling. Neither conclusion is very palatable for Parliament or for confidence in the competence of the immigration system.

Mr. Steen rose—

Ms Abbott rose—

Damian Green: I will give way to my hon. Friend—no; ladies first.

Ms Abbott: On the issue of figures, I have a confession to make. When I came down from Cambridge, my first job was as a graduate trainee with the Home Office, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Office keeps millions of files full of figures. I would regard with a certain amount of scepticism any reply saying that a figure cannot be provided because of disproportionate cost.

Damian Green: I am glad that the hon. Lady has confirmed the scepticism that was already in my mind about whether the Home Office has that information.

Mr. Steen: My hon. Friend has forgotten about me.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): No, the hon. Gentleman was replying to an earlier intervention.

Mr. Steen: I thought that he had finished.

I have had exactly the same problem, but I have also had the enhanced problem of receiving contradictory answers from the Home Office—some saying that it does not have the figures, and some saying that it has the figures but then giving the wrong ones. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Home Office give completely different figures on convictions for trafficking offenders in this country? Therefore, even when we get figures, they are not the same or right. That is even more confusing.

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Damian Green: I thank my hon. Friend for that cogent intervention. The more we delve into this matter, the more depressing the situation appears. I am sure that the Minister would like to address that.

I have some sympathy for the Minister, because there is a case for saying that in a system of controlled immigration we need to have the power to detain people at some point, and may need to detain families. As did other hon. Members, I visited Yarl’s Wood, and, like any normal, civilised human being, I came away profoundly uneasy at the sight of young children behind bars, of doors being clanged shut and of jailers—that is what they are—with huge bunches of keys, yet behind those doors were children playing happily.

There is something about that situation that would give rise to a huge sense of unease in any civilised person. That is why many hon. Members rightly raised the prospect of alternatives. Many mentioned the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which stated in its 1999 guidelines that detention should only be resorted to for a minimal period in cases of necessity. It also made a point that was made earlier about the UK Borders Act 2007. I moved amendments to the Bill, which, it should be said, were supported by Liberal Democrat Members, that would have applied the conditions of the Children Act 2004 to the Bill, but the Government rejected them partly for the reasons that were set out by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, and partly because they said that such conditions would render impossible the proper work of immigration officers. We doubted that on the grounds that the same duty is already applied to police officers who clearly have to make positive and occasionally coercive interventions against children. As it does not stop them doing their job, I was not convinced by the Government’s arguments.

Nevertheless, even the UNHCR accepts that detention is needed in some circumstances. There are two central questions for the Minister to answer. Are we detaining as few children as possible for as short a time as possible, and are there alternatives to detention that would be equally effective?

The first question, which involves delays, is a long-standing problem of the whole asylum and, indeed, wider immigration system. Delay is still endemic. Asylum and immigration tribunals are overwhelmed because cases are not handled in the most efficient manner possible. Some of the victims of delay and incompetence are children, who are held in detention for far longer than I suspect even Ministers would wish to be the case.

I, too, have asked many parliamentary questions about Yarl’s Wood. I was told that few children are held there for more than 28 days, but I doubted that response. Some of the evidence that has been produced today suggests that my scepticism was justified. It is clear that delays happen. They are part of a wider systemic problem. As was said earlier, Ministers talk tough but act ineffectually in this area.

The second big question is around potential options or proper alternatives to detention, which were discussed by the all-party group on refugees. I would like the Minister to deal particularly with two of the options that it mentioned. The Swedish option has already been discussed. Another option is electronic monitoring and tagging.

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