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The UNHCR report on alternative detention notes that the 2001 Home Office evaluation of tagging in the criminal justice field stated that there was a 90 per cent. compliance rate among criminals. I am aware of recent research that is less positive about tagging, but I would be grateful if the Minister were to address it as a possible option. The point has been made that, of all the people who may be detained because of asylum and immigration matters, families are probably the least likely to abscond. Therefore, would tagging be effective?

The other alternative that I would draw to the Minister’s attention is the work in Melbourne, Australia, of the Hotham Mission. I am sure that she is familiar with it, as everyone who deals with this area has been told that it works extremely well. It seeks to ensure a sound basis for improved welfare and to establish a safe environment for those who are the equivalents of those detained in this country. It houses 120 asylum seekers in 38 properties, provides support and runs a befriending programme.

Clearly, outcomes are important. The point about the Hotham Mission is that, of the people who had gone through the project, 43 per cent. received immigration status, 57 per cent. had their claims refused and left the country, and 0 per cent. absconded. That is a spectacular figure for this difficult area. If there is a project somewhere in the world in which 0 per cent. of people end up absconding, we should be looking hard at it.

Regardless of the wider immigration crisis, which shows no sign of improving, it ought to be easier to cope with the asylum system than it was a few years ago, as the numbers have come down—thankfully, largely because of the present absence of Balkan conflicts. I hope that the Government’s refusal to insert a duty of care for children into the 2007 Act is not symbolic of their general attitude. As I said, I have some sympathy with the Minister, but I still need convincing that the Government are being either efficient or humane in their treatment of children in immigration detention.

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), on securing this debate on this important subject. I believe we all agree that her contribution was thoughtful, thoroughly researched and, as usual on this issue, passionate. She has a strong track record on immigration issues in her half of Hackney and here in the House.

I am heartened that there seems to be consensus in the Chamber that this country needs a firm, fair and swift immigration process and policy. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) asked whether the Government believe that we should have a strong immigration policy. Yes, we do, and that is one reason why we are unveiling changes. We are 100 or so days away from the new points-based system that will be launched in February, which will mean that only those whom we want to come to this country and contribute to it will be able to do so.

However, such a system will require enforcement. When I was first elected as a councillor in 1994 and first came across the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I certainly did not think that I would stand
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here one day as part of a Government who have to make tough decisions about detention, including detention of children. It is not something that we aim to do but something that we have to do as part of the immigration process.

I shall outline some of the things that the Government are doing to try to reduce the number of children in detention, and measures that we have taken to improve their welfare. I shall also do my best in the time available to answer the many points raised, particularly by my hon. Friend, but by others as well.

The Minister for Borders and Immigration takes the matter seriously. Indeed, when he was putting together the UK Borders Bill and taking it through Parliament, he listened closely to what representatives of refugee and children’s organisations said was needed to ensure that children in detention received greater support and care. For two years now we have had in the Border and Immigration Agency—formerly the immigration and nationality directorate—a children’s champion. In June this year, my hon. Friend unveiled the children’s code. If I have time, I shall go into it, but, as it has been published, I may have to skip over it more quickly than I would like.

Ms Abbott: If the Government are concerned about how children are treated in immigration detention, why do they not simply extend the provisions of the relevant children’s legislation to children in detention? Surely that would be the easiest way. As has been pointed out, those provisions do not hamper the job of the police, so why should they hamper immigration officers?

Meg Hillier: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I hope that I will be able to answer some of those questions as I go through the matters that have been raised. The Home Office has attempted to ensure that the Border and Immigration Agency is much more focused on the welfare not just of children but, generally, of all the people for whom it is responsible. We have made some progress.

We are considering alternatives. I highlight particularly the Clannebor project in Yorkshire, where specialists work closely with families. Case conferences include the parents of the children in discussions about options for their going home voluntarily. We will be starting a similar pilot in Kent at the end of this year. The pilots take account of the Australian model to which the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) referred, and we hope that they will lead to solutions and a reduction in the number of children in detention.

It is worth highlighting that children are in detention because their parents are at risk of absconding, or are on the point of removal. The parents have the opportunity of leaving voluntarily so that their children would not have to be in detention.

Ms Abbott: I seek the Minister’s assurance that she is not saying that children are being detained because of the faults, crimes or suspected criminal activities of their parents.

Meg Hillier: I am happy to clarify that. The limited circumstances in which children may be detained under immigration legislation powers are when they are part of a family group for which detention is considered necessary. Occasionally and exceptionally, unaccompanied
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children may be detained, perhaps overnight, when there is no other alternative for their care, perhaps because social services could not be contacted. That would happen only in extremis, and for their safety. The general principle, as I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates, is that detention is used only when necessary, and that is especially true for families with children.

The detention of families with children is, naturally, regrettable. No one wants that to happen, and the Government do not detain such families lightly. Such detention is emotive, but it happens and will continue to happen when those who have no right of stay in this country will not leave voluntarily. That is the point about parental responsibility. We would prefer families that have no lawful basis for staying in our country to accept that fact and leave voluntarily but, sadly, they do not.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of vexatious judicial reviews, and it is worth noting that there are about 80 judicial reviews a month of people in detention, not all of them with children, but the Government have never lost a case on the policy of having children in detention. Regrettably, that often delays a family’s departure and means that children are in detention longer.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister must share my concern about the quality of much legal representation, particularly in the initial stage of immigration. Does she believe that some cases have poor representation throughout, and that cases that could have been successful are often lost because of that representation? Should that not be looked at?

Meg Hillier: My hon. Friend raises an important point that I identified early on as a constituency MP. The quality of advice that people receive, not only on immigration but on other issues, is variable. I hope that the changes in legal aid support and the quality controls that the Government are trying to establish will also help in the immigration area. He is right to identify that better advice and support can help in a number of ways, not least to ensure that families are held in detention no longer than necessary.

Although families may be detained under the same criteria as individuals—while identity or claims are established, because there is a risk of absconding, as part of a fast-track asylum process, or to effect removal—it is not usual for them to be detained for more than a few days at a time, and they are accommodated in dedicated family rooms—[Interruption.].

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Two hon. Members are talking rather loudly while the Minister is addressing questions that other hon. Members have asked. Perhaps they will desist from doing so.

Meg Hillier: The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) asked whether it is possible to visit detention centres, and has heard that other hon. Members have done so. The Government are always happy to facilitate hon. Members to make such visits.

Mr. Steen: Does that include the immigration service?

Meg Hillier: The Border and Immigration Agency and the Home Office would be happy to facilitate a visit if the hon. Gentleman wants that.

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Detention of families is kept to a minimum, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington asked about the number of children detained after 28 days, and particularly about ministerial involvement. I will look into that further, and write to her or perhaps ask the Minister for Borders and Immigration to take up the matter. She made a fair point.

That brings me to the general issue of figures. We know how many children are in our detention estate at any one time, but that changes daily, which is often a reason for confusion because figures change as people are removed from the country. I acknowledge that there is still room for improvement in the published statistics, and emphasise that the Government are keen to be as open and transparent as possible.

We have introduced a number of measures better to identify, locate and refer children who are not in the estate, to which the hon. Member for Totnes referred. We are working on that, but children not in the estate are ultimately the responsibility of local authorities. I remember the issue from 1994 when I was first elected to a London borough council and became responsible for social services. It is worrying, and a balance must be struck between keeping children safe but not locking them up when in care, and ensuring that they have relevant support. I emphasise that since 2000, when I was a councillor, the Government have set up a network of authorities to provide better support because of the pressure to ensure that local authorities develop a reservoir of expertise.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to guardian ad litem, but children in detention are with their parents, and it is worth remembering that parents have ultimate responsibility for their children. It is not the Government’s intention to separate children from their parents, and that is why, sadly, children go into detention more often than we like.

We are worried about children who go missing from care, and we are working on that with other Departments. It is not easy to solve the problem, but the introduction of identity cards, locking a child’s identity clearly to themselves, will help, particularly where trafficking is concerned. I see informal adoptions in my constituency, and it is difficult to know where all the children have come from. Identity cards will be a major step, and I look forward to the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party as that matter progresses.

My hon. Friend was critical of the Government. She rightly highlighted that these children are exposed and vulnerable, but emphasised that they are with their parents. They are not taken away from their parents, and it is worth remembering that. The number of children detained at the longer end of the scale—for up to three months—has fallen, and we do not want it to be so high, which is why we have introduced the pilots. I will write to her with more details if she wants me to as time is short.

Every child in the system will have a single case owner so that families and individuals claiming asylum will have better support to progress their case more quickly. Delay is one of the main reasons for children being held.

I want to touch on medical treatment, which was raised by my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Children have access to GP-level services with ready access to
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secondary and tertiary health care services in the community. All removal centre health care providers are in the process of registering with the Healthcare Commission, and will provide fuller oversight and the sort of accountability that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington rightly raised. That is an essential part of the system.

Children in detention are subject to the Children Act 2004, which the courts have said must apply, subject to practical constraints that inevitably arise from the fact of detention. For example, two social workers from Bedfordshire work full time at Yarl’s Wood to ensure that the Act is adhered to. We address psychological and health needs by providing an independent social work and health assessment for children detained with their families, as well as ensuring that everyone has access to GP screening, if they want that, in the first 24 hours.

I shall not have time to go through all the issues at Yarl’s Wood, but the barred gate has been removed, and a normal door has been installed, which addresses one of the points raised. Changes have been made to ensure that children at Yarl’s Wood receive a better service, but I am keen to continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend and to keep her appraised of that progress.

In summary, we have a central dilemma. Some people seeking asylum must be removed because they will not leave voluntarily. We do not want children to be detained, but should we separate them from their parents? I do not believe that children should be released into local authority care and separated from their parents. Our option is slightly better, but our main aim is to reduce the number of children in detention through the pilots that I outlined, and we use tagging when that is appropriate. I hope that those measures will reduce the number of children detained unnecessarily.

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Local Government (Norfolk)

11 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to debate this important subject and I look forward to being under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I also thank the Minister for being here to answer our questions, because he had to rearrange his diary to do so, and I am particularly grateful to him because he is the Minister responsible for this issue. A number of colleagues from Norfolk are also here. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) contacted me to say that he is unable to be here because of a Select Committee commitment, but the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) may grace us with his presence later.

I initiated the debate to express my concerns about the Government’s proposal to have the boundary committee consider a unitary authority based on an expanded Norwich city, and about the consequent changes for the county and district councils in Norfolk. The view in Norfolk—certainly among Labour members in Norwich—is that a Norwich unitary authority is a done deal and that Ministers have already made their decision. Indeed, so confident is Norwich city council that, in September, it appointed a director of transformation—that is almost like something out of J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”—on a modest stipend of £90,000 a year. We should remember that that was before the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 had passed through the House. The director’s remit was to help to “shape and deliver” a new unitary council—no ifs, no buts.

My purpose this morning is to impress on the Minister that there is, to say the least, a considerable lack of support in Norfolk—and, I suspect, limited support in Norwich—for his specific unitary proposal. There are serious questions about the nature of the proposal, the impact on local communities and the danger that the county of Norfolk as an administrative unit will be abolished. Whatever people’s views on the issue, however, perhaps the most fundamental question is about democratic accountability.

I remind the Minister that for many of us in Norfolk this latest initiative follows the failure of Norwich’s bid this summer to become a unitary authority. It failed to meet the Government’s own criteria, and that was thought to be due to the inherent weaknesses of the city’s current boundaries. The Government have therefore now decided to move the goalposts and establish a unitary authority based on an enlarged city boundary.

I represent the constituency of Mid-Norfolk, which is shaped rather like a large banana resting on top of Norwich. There are two district councils in my constituency—Breckland to the west and Broadland to the east, and local government in both gets high marks for council tax and the delivery of services. Parishes in Broadland are divided between the constituency of Norwich, North and my constituency, so I must declare an immediate interest.

Following the original bid earlier this year, I did not receive one letter, telephone call or e-mail supporting the bid for a Norwich unitary authority and the possible impact on Broadland district council or Norfolk county council. In fact, quite the opposite happened, and I
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received hundreds of letters, phone calls and e-mails opposing the proposals. Every town and parish council formally objected, and those formal objections will be on the files in the Minister’s Department. Those objections were based on a perceived threat to county and district councils that were efficient, gave value for money and which the Government themselves rated highly for the delivery of services. Sadly—this is sad—the perception of Norwich city council was the opposite, and the Audit Commission qualified its accounts in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

Local Norfolk opinion was best summed up in an editorial in the Eastern Daily Press on 23 June 2007:


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