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"The plight of detained children remained of great concern. While child welfare services had improved, an immigration removal centre can never be a suitable place for children and we were dismayed to find cases of disabled children being detained and some children spending large amounts of time incarcerated. We were concerned about ineffective and inaccurate monitoring of length of detention in this extremely important area. Any period of detention can be detrimental to children and their families, but the impact of lengthy detention is particularly extreme".
"The IMB acknowledges the dedication, kindness and patience of staff involved in the care of children and families at Yarl's Wood. However, we remain extremely concerned about the detention of children. We highlight, inter alia, the length of detention, late night and early morning movements and the disruption to older children's education."
I echo the comments made by the IMB, because the issue is not just what happens at the centre. The trained staff who work there especially with children do the best that they can. They have to cope with a fluctuating population and great age differences, and they have to deal with children in the situation in which they have arrived. We have met children who were in school for long periods, but who were taken out shortly before examinations and therefore unable to complete them. They are completely disorientated: they have lost friends and loved ones, and have no certainty about what will happen to them. All that has to be taken into account in how those children are dealt with. This is not the time or place to go into how the UK Border Agency handles some of those issues of movement-they tell their own story. I simply quote the statistics for how long some children are there and the impact that that has to impress on the Minister my next point, which is that we have to work even harder for alternatives to detention for children.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): On the point about children in detention, I visited Yarl's Wood, and although the staff are dedicated, the conditions are not those in which one would want one's own child kept. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that children are being kept at Yarl's Wood for much longer than MPs were initially assured they would be?
Alistair Burt: Yes, and indeed they are. That remains one of the problems of the system that we are dealing with. When Yarl's Wood was built, the original intention was to hold people for a short period before they moved out. Originally children were not there at all. They were added relatively recently, and I am sure that the decision was taken that they should be there for very short periods. I do not know whether the Minister has the figures this evening, but during the day I asked her office for the numbers of children who have been held over the past couple of years for longer than six months, nine months and 12 months, and how many were held, for example, over last Christmas.
The argument that the House would make to the Minister is this. Recognising all the difficulties and the pressure outside, she should tell us more about the alternatives and the pilots for dealing with those children differently. That is what I want briefly to touch on now.
I am aware of the experiment that has been conducted-the Millbank alternative-and of the differing opinions on the success of that experiment. The official line was to say that it had not been a success and that it did not reduce the number of people absconding. However, a report produced by the Children's Society, the Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and Bail for Immigration Detainees looked into some of the drawbacks of that pilot and some things that might have been done better. Those groups think that the pilot was too short and that the referral criteria were unclear. Case owners-those looking after cases for the UK Border Agency-had a disincentive to refer families to the pilot. Families were not given enough time to explore the possibility of return.
The consensus view is that there were deficiencies in the pilot. It would therefore be wrong just to dismiss it and not have another go. I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little more about the new pilot that is under way-it started in Scotland last year-because it is on such pilots that we pin many of our hopes. There is an understandable horror at seeing children behind bars. We know why it is difficult for the UK Border Agency to deal with families with children-we all understand that-but there has to be a better alternative.
I would like to use this opportunity to say that, quite rightly, facilities at Yarl's Wood have improved markedly. The new little school built inside the centre is terrific; or it would be if it did not lead out to closed doors and the centre itself. If the school were in the middle of one of my lovely Bedfordshire fields, it would be marvellous.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I apologise for missing the start of this Adjournment debate, but I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue. The Select Committee on Home Affairs visited the school, although there were no children in it when we were there. Our concern is that the school dealt only with very young children. Children who were not of school age were at the centre and they could not be taught and had nothing to do. If we are looking at short-term facilities, the school is something that should be provided. However, Yarl's Wood remains essentially a prison.
Alistair Burt: Difficulties are involved in dealing with such a wide range of children. The staff do not know who is going to be there, and the children do not know how long they will be staying. Their taking any kind of formal course is almost impossible in the circumstances. We are really talking about child minding, and giving them something to take their minds off where they are. Children are children, and we can see them playing and doing the best they can in the circumstances, but they know where they are. They can feel their parents' distress, and none of us can take that away.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, and for the sensitive way in which he has taken up the issue of Yarl's Wood. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), I have visited the centre. In his estimation, what is the long-term psychological effect on children who have spent any amount of time in what he correctly describes as prison conditions? It is totally wrong for any child to be kept in such conditions for any length of time.
Alistair Burt: From the professional opinions that I have read-including those of general practitioners and those involved in psychology and health-these conditions almost always produce an impact for the bad. Children have varying degrees of resilience, but detention has an impact on all of them, and the longer the detention, the more difficult this becomes.
The Minister will know that it is not a question of these children being held for a period of time then all automatically leaving the country. Many of them are returned to the communities from which they came, because of a change in the way in which their case is looked at. With what degree of certainty can they go back to their former lives? They will always be wondering when the Benefits Agency will come knocking on the door at 6 o'clock in the morning to take them away again. I am sorry to put it that way, but it is true. Early morning removals are, as the Minister knows, part of the practice of the Benefits Agency, unless things have changed recently. Understandably, that also adds an element of fear.
I shall return to these points briefly at the end of my speech when I acknowledge the difficulties involved, but I shall leave them with the Minister for the moment. I want briefly to mention two further issues. The first involves ex-foreign national prisoners. There is a mixture of women detainees at Yarl's Wood, many of whom have had no contact whatever with the criminal process. They are purely asylum seekers who have been detained. Some, however, have been in prison and are being held at Yarl's Wood before being returned to other countries.
This poses a particular problem. Those women might have been held in prison for some time before being taken to the centre for an indefinite period. They also have complex lives. They might have partners outside, and they might have been separated from their children while they were in prison. They are now being separated from them again while they are in the centre. Some would say that criminal cases should be looked at quite differently, and I can understand that, but the same frustrations can arise. If their cases are not dealt with swiftly, further damage can be done. It is important to look at that particular category of case.
I also want to mention health issues. I want to pick out a further quote from the latest report by the independent monitoring board, if I may. I have some time, so I shall give the House a couple of examples. The 2009 report stated:
"Another example is that of a child with sickle cell anaemia, who had a letter from his specialist explaining that his mobility was severely limited by pain. His mother was engaged in a dispute with Healthcare"-
"as to whether he should have to attend the clinic to take his painkillers, rather than have them brought to the residential unit. Leaving aside the question of whether a child with such a serious condition should have been detained, we felt that this dispute should not have been permitted to arise and, further, that it illustrated a scepticism which has a detrimental effect on patient care."
"A...more general consequence is the existence, as we see it, of a culture of scepticism about detainees' medical conditions. A detainee who had suffered a stroke whilst in prison was brought to Yarl's Wood at the end of her sentence in July 2008. There was a degree of doubt, particularly on the part of UKBA at the port, about the extent of her disability, with the result that there was some delay in providing the necessary equipment and services for
her care. The need for physiotherapy was not recorded by Healthcare until two weeks after her arrival and did not start, as we understand it, owing to issues over funding, until more than one month after her arrival. Officers and UKBA staff locally did their best to care for her and to source the necessary equipment, but were confronted with scepticism about her condition, and with disputes between the relevant authorities over funding."
On a number of occasions, I have raised the issue of the independence of the health care offered at Yarl's Wood. The contractors-either Group 4 or Serco-have the responsibility to commission the health care, but I think that is wrong because the independence of the health care is inevitably compromised. Wishing no ill will on anyone involved, it looks difficult. Circumstances often arise where there is a dispute over the condition of the detainee between the contractor's health care officer and another specialist or other doctors outside.
Yarl's Wood exists to enable people to leave the country. If there is an issue about fitness to travel and the decision is made by a contracted company inside Yarl's Wood, what chance is there of having confidence that it has not been influenced by the contract given to the contractors to get people out of the country? It puts the medical staff in a compromised position. As on Monday, there is a dispute between those outside Yarl's Wood, who have heard reports from detainees about what happened, and those inside as to whether anyone was injured and whether any medical assistance was available-it is all run by Serco. I have little doubt that what I am told by Serco is the truth, but there are others who will be more sceptical than me. A degree of independence in respect of the health care provided at Yarl's Wood is now necessary. That would happen if the contract were not given to Serco, but to the NHS and the local primary care trust. Then we would have the necessary degree of independence and it would cover children, as well as HIV treatment when people with HIV have to leave the country. I believe it would be safer for the medical staff, for detainees, for Serco, for the Government and for everyone if such a degree of independence were there.
Finally-I appreciate the House's indulgence; I was fortunate to have this amount of time for my Adjournment debate-I have not mentioned fast-track; I have not mentioned escort services to and from Heathrow; and I have not mentioned the continuing presence of rogue legal advisers who fleece the most vulnerable and take money from the rest of us by the way in which they handle cases. I could have mentioned a variety of other things. Yarl's Wood comprises a mixture of women with different histories, and the public may feel more sympathy for some than others. I am afraid that there is an alarming tendency in modern Britain to judge all in Yarl's Wood as being the same, and for that judgment to be harsh.
I pay tribute to those who work with detainees: the independent monitoring board, the befrienders, and even some outside groups whose political views I do not share, as they would say no to borders and have no immigration controls. I pay tribute to them for their interest in, and care for, those who would otherwise lack a voice. A society that rightly protects its borders and that may need to detain and deport has a clear obligation to act justly, fairly and transparently to those involved and to hear the voices of those under lock and key-above all, those of the innocent children caught up in matters beyond their comprehension, which may mark them for ever.
None of these issues is easy; none of the problems on the Minister's desk is capable of an easy solution. It may be that the legacy of all we have spoken about passes shortly from the Minister's side of the House to mine-and the problems will still be there. I feel that although Yarl's Wood has come a long way, two or three more changes might make a difference. I would be grateful if we could start with a clear decision on health care. I would also be grateful if the Minister enlightened us about how the pilot projects with children are going and I would like to hear how she reacts to some of the issues that have been raised in frustration by detainees. For the benefit of all of us, the safe and secure immigration system that we all need demands clear and straightforward justice for those involved. There are still problems in the system that badly need dealing with. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and the Minister for allowing me to make a short contribution to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it. I agreed with all the substantive points he made, particularly about the need for independence on health care, preferably through the national health service. In the interests of fairness and balance, I would like to pick up on one point that the hon. Gentleman raised at the beginning of his contribution: the huge backlogs in the asylum system were growing in 1997 when Labour came to power; they were not invented by this Government.
The Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre is located about 4 miles from Bedford, so for a number of reasons I have a constituency interest in the subject, to which the hon. Gentleman has already alluded.
In my short speech, I shall focus on the detention of children. Increasing concern has been expressed about that by a number of organisations, including all the children's charities. In 2008, Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, drew attention to the negative impact of lengthy detention on children's well-being, and more recently the Children's Commissioner made some hard-hitting remarks. Last November the Home Affairs Committee said that detention should be short, and a last resort. Public awareness has also been boosted by Juliet Stevenson's "Motherland". I was pleased that, at my instigation, it was performed in Bedford last month to a packed Civic theatre.
Alistair Burt: I am sorry-I forgot to mention that, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has done so. It was an extraordinary production. Juliet Stevenson and her colleagues presented a series of stories of children who had been caught up in detention, excellently and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, to a packed theatre.
Under the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, the UK Border Agency must conduct its work in a manner that upholds the welfare of children. That means, to me, reducing detention and developing
community alternatives to it. I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister expressing my view that, in an ideal world, families with children would not be detained at all. I accept that in some exceptional circumstances it may be necessary to detain them just before removal, but only because it is in the interests of children not to be put into care and therefore preferable for them to remain with their parents.
I realise that my hon. Friend, and indeed any Minister dealing with such matters, has an extremely difficult job to do. Immigration control, let alone detention, is extremely challenging. It is in that spirit of understanding that I have asked the Minister to meet me-along with, I hope, the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire-to discuss how the detention of children might be significantly reduced.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) paid tribute to a number of organisations and individuals. Let me now pay tribute to him for the way in which he has consistently addressed this issue and widened it so that it has become more than just a constituency matter.
I want to discuss, very briefly, what has happened over the past week. There are two detention centres in my constituency, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. There have been two riots at Harmondsworth in recent years. As some Members will recall, on both occasions there were fires, and on one occasion the centre was burnt down and had to be evacuated.
According to reports that I have read about the demonstration that took place over the weekend, there was some rough handling, and people were denied water and food. Regardless of whether such action is taken because people are in a particular location, I consider it inappropriate. That is why we are calling for an independent inquiry, and I urge the Minister to commission it as rapidly as possible. I agree that it could be based not just on witness statements, but on the closed-circuit television recordings that might be available. I say that because after the first riot at Harmondsworth a number of lessons were not learnt, or not learnt speedily enough, which led to a second riot that posed even more danger to both staff and detainees.
I would welcome the announcement of such an inquiry-conducted by Anne Owers or by someone else-and of a time scale for its report. I also echo the request for information on what has happened to the four detainees who were moved during the hunger strike. I should like to know what disciplinary action, if any, has been taken against them, and whether it has had any impact on their case.
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