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Harmondsworth used to house children. I have visited it regularly over the years, from when it was a row of huts. It was then turned into a semi-prison housing 400, and now there is Colnbrook as well, on a similar scale. We have heard in our debate about the effects that detention has on children, and there have been studies that have shown the long-term emotional impact of even a brief spell of detention, but, as has been said, the figures demonstrate that children are being held for much longer than anyone promised. Even a matter of
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months is an enormously long period in a child's life, and will have a significantly deleterious effect on their well-being.

I remember visiting Harmondsworth when there were children there. I remember in particular an occasion when the children did a project on what freedom meant to them, and I will never forget one of the statements from the children, which was that freedom is the sand outside the gates that they could look through. That has always stayed with me. No matter how caring the staff, the fact that these children are locked up-in effect, imprisoned-not only shames us as a society, but has drastic effects on their futures.

That is why, in principle, I do not believe we should be locking up children at all. I do not believe that is justified, and I believe that in a civilised society we should be able to find alternative means. Even I am critical of the pilots that have been developed, because they still have an element of intimidatory behaviour towards young people. At some time in the future, I would welcome a wider debate about the principle of the detention of children who have done nothing wrong. In fact, even the parents themselves are not criminals; they have not committed any crime, as such. In no other area of law do we detain children simply because they are with their parents. There must be alternative solutions that we can bring forward.

I also believe that we detain people in far greater numbers than is reasonable. Many of us have dealt with individual cases. They might involve people going to Yarl's Wood and then down to Harmondsworth, and then on to the airport and then back again, as people are dragged through a tortuous legal system. Most such cases involve people who, in the first instance, simply want to live in a country where their human rights are not abused and where they are not under threat of physical violence. In addition, most of them probably simply want to work-they simply want to earn an income that gives them a standard of living that lifts them out of poverty. That should be welcomed, rather than penalised by dragging them through the processes of the courts and then on to deportation.

Patrick Hall: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that attempts to obtain information about allegations of incidents that take place during episodes of transportation are sometimes withheld on the grounds of commercial confidentiality?

John McDonnell: My hon. Friend is right. It is extremely difficult to find out information on any of these cases when they are in transit. When dealing with individual cases, we often find, certainly in respect of Harmondsworth, that people are moved around the system and it is then very difficult to track them. My hon. Friend is right that commercial confidentiality has been used, and I must say that that is a result of the privatisation of the overall system, which I abhor.

First, I would like an inquiry to be conducted as a matter of urgency, and I would welcome information on that tonight, if possible. Secondly, I ask the Government to review the whole concept of detaining children. Thirdly, I ask the Government to review the scale of detention in this country, which we use against people whom I believe should be allowed to settle and contribute to our society.

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6.39 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing it.

People in detention centres do not have a vote and there are no votes to be won by paying attention to what happens in detention centres. Whether we are willing to debate seriously and pay attention to the conditions of people who are not citizens or voters is a test of this House and a test of our humanity.

I do not have a constituency interest in that I do not have a detention centre in my constituency, but, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and like some of my other hon. Friends, I deal with a huge volume of immigration casework.

Over the years, I have come to focus on what goes on at detention centres. I have visited Oakington and Yarl's Wood. Of course, one has to pay tribute to the staff working in them, but I have been in the House long enough to remember when the centres were set up and the assurances that MPs were given, which can be found in Hansard, that people would be held there briefly on their way to being transported out of the country. Issues that were raised then about the regime were brushed aside on the basis that people would be in the centres only for short periods.

As time has gone on, we have seen people being held for longer and longer. I believe that had MPs known when the idea first came before the House the length of time for which people would be held in the centres-and, in particular, the length of time for which children would be held there-MPs would have offered much more opposition to that proposal than they did at the time.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire touched on the issue of health care in detention centres. That is very important. One of the constant complaints one hears when one visits those detention centres and meets the voluntary groups that work with them concerns health issues and health care. It seems a simple step forward to allow the health care to be provided, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, quite independently of the private contractor that runs the detention centre so that there is no question of a conflict of interest or of costs being shaved. That would mean that detainees and their children could have absolute psychological confidence in the health care they were being offered.

Alistair Burt: I should have mentioned this in my remarks. Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the prime drivers for that is the fact that a number of women detainees come from backgrounds of violence, rape and torture and that there is often a dispute of opinion about what their background has been? The medical staff involved at Yarl's Wood or another centre might be compromised in their judgment of that background. In such circumstances, an independent element is vital.

Ms Abbott: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to make that point. There is often a dispute concerning women detainees and issues of rape and past sexual
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violence. If the women detainees are dependent on a health care service that is commissioned by the private contractor, they will not feel confident, rightly or wrongly, in the health advice that they are given. I have had issues raised with me about the treatment available at detention centres for tuberculosis or HIV. Some detainees and advisers feel that they are not getting the best possible treatment because of attempts to cut costs or effort. I do not know whether that is true, but if the health care was independently provided the detainees and the people who help and support them would have more confidence in the system.

On the question of children in detention, as I have said, I have visited both Yarl's Wood and Oakington. When one looks at the little school and talks to the people who help with the children, one cannot help but leave impressed by their care and concern. There is a school there, and toys and facilities, but they are all behind walls and gates. To all intents and purposes, a young child in Yarl's Wood is in prison. How can they understand it when they are being kept there for months?

I know that the Minister is a mother. She will have a brief from her officials and she will talk to us about immigration control, but I ask her to imagine that it was her children behind bars. Are these the conditions that she would want for them? They would not be able to run completely free as far as they like, or to go into town to see Father Christmas, or to go into town to meet their friends. Are those the conditions that anyone would want for their child? Not for three months, not for two months, not for a month-not even for a day.

These children and their parents have committed no crime. They might be a threat to efficient immigration control, but they have committed no crime. Should they be kept in conditions that we would not want our own children kept in for 24 hours? I repeat that when the House originally debated setting up the detention centres, it had no idea that children would be kept in them for the lengths of time that they are.

Time and again, not only committed campaigners-I have the utmost respect for the committed campaigners with whom I and other hon. Members have worked-but people such as Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, have voiced their concerns about holding children in such conditions. I have seen reports that officials whom I have met will certainly have seen, which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire might also have seen, about psychiatric examinations of children. The people who examine and talk to those children elicit from them the stress and trauma that being transported to and held in detention centres has caused them. For people who have not read such reports, there is the remarkable production by Juliet Stevenson, which vividly brought home to many people who heard it on the radio or went to see it live what it means to children to be held in those conditions and to be taken away from their communities, school friends and schools to what is for them a prison for reasons that they do not understand.

Ministers must remember that the detention of such children is a phenomenon that has emerged without Parliament ever having explicitly said that that is what it wanted to happen. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) that we should not keep in detention children who have
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committed no crime and whose parents have committed no crime. Time and again, people have said that that practice puts us in breach of the convention on the rights of the child. I cannot believe that the Government cannot, in the 21st century, find alternatives.

I know what Ministers will say, because I have been doing immigration casework for 20-odd years. They will say that if we do not put people in detention, they will not return of their own free will, or they will cause problems. Detention at Yarl's Wood or Oakington is the end of the line in a system that, although Ministers have improved it greatly, still has too many blockages and still encourages people to feel that they can delay cases. The children whom Ministers feel forced to hold in detention are the victims of a system that still has too many delays. They are the victims of so-called immigration advisers out there who are still giving people poor advice that encourages them to hold on against all hope. Those children are the victims of what happens further up the system, but it all ends with a child who should be carefree and able to look out of the window as far as the eye can see being held behind bars in a prison for the purposes of others.

I have been privileged to meet families who are in detention in Yarl's Wood, including children and mothers, to hear their concerns. I have been privileged to work with campaigners down the years and I have brought these issues to the House's attention in other Adjournment debates. I must say to the Government that although focus groups and opinion polls will say that no one cares if we keep children in conditions that are in breach of their human rights and that there are no votes in this issue, we should be better than that. We should work towards a situation in which no child of an immigrant, even if that immigrant is here illegally and subject to immigration control, is kept by the state in conditions that we would not tolerate for our own children.

6.48 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the sympathetic and humanitarian way in which he introduced the debate and for the very good work that he has done to draw attention to all the problems at Yarl's Wood over a long time. It is to his credit that he has done a great deal of work on that. He and I go back a long way, of course, having been Haringey councillors together.

Ms Abbott: Ooh! Too much information.

Jeremy Corbyn: There is nothing wrong with Haringey council.

The hon. Gentleman's humanitarian instincts are of the highest order, and I congratulate him on the way he has represented the issues concerning the detention centre and what goes with it.

We are dealing with a fundamental issue of human rights. As hon. Members have pointed out, the detention of children is something that we would condemn unreservedly if it were happening in any other country, or under any other regime around the world. Obviously, when I hear Ministers fulminate about the detention of children in other regimes, I join them in doing so, because the detention of children is fundamentally wrong.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was right to point out that we are signatories to the European convention on human rights and to the UN convention on the rights of the child. Indeed, there is a big monument in the middle of Hyde park that proclaims how well we treat children and how good our views about their treatment around the world are. However, we cannot hold our heads high and say we support international conventions if at the same time we detain children here. That fetters our ability to criticise regimes that, in respect of human rights, behave in a way we do not support.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, I have visited Yarl's Wood. I am not here to criticise the centre's staff, because that is not the point of the debate. Nor do I wish to criticise how they work, as many of them are extremely caring and good people, but they are in an utterly impossible situation. They are given families with children to look after yet-regardless of the toys that they can offer or the activities that they undertake-the people involved are still locked up, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire was absolutely right to say. The prison key system with the doors that he described is always there, which means that people are not free to move around and travel. It is right to say that we ought to be better than that, and I hope that the Minister will give us some hope about what will happen in the future.

Another point that I hope the Minister will be able to answer when she replies to the debate has to do with the fact that people's experience of detention centres in this country is not a happy one. There have been many cases of disturbances, riots, near-riots, hunger strikes and protests. People in the centres suffer from utter boredom, and utter desolation because they do not know what is going to happen to them. The problem is especially severe for people who are faced with removal to regimes that will not accept them, because they end up staying in the centres for months on end. That is a cause of considerable concern.

I understand that there have been further demonstrations and a hunger strike in Yarl's Wood over the past few days. I should be grateful if the Minister informed the House about the current situation, and told us what representations she has received from other organisations and agencies.

Ms Abbott: Years ago, I used to work in the prison service as an administrator. My hon. Friend has talked about unrest in detention centres, but does he agree that, just as in prison, the secret to achieving a stable regime with no unrest is to ensure that people are treated in a fair and decent way? Does recurrent unrest not point to problems with the regime?

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend is correct, and one only has to recall the fire that took place at Yarl's Wood, and all the disturbances that have happened there in the past. Events like that tend to repeat themselves, so we have to look very seriously at the whole principle behind detention centres and particularly at how children are detained in them. I hope that this debate will give the Minister the opportunity to tell the House what is going on, as many of us are deeply concerned. Moreover, many decent and ordinary people in this country are ashamed that this country detains children.

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My final point is that, like all colleagues in the House today, I deal with a very large amount of immigration and asylum casework. I am constantly astonished by the inability of the immigration service and Home Office officials simply to answer letters. Why can they not tell people what the state of their case is? For example, why am I expected to hand on a letter to a constituent that says that an answer to an inquiry I made two years ago can be expected only at the end of 2011, at best? That is insulting to the highest degree-to the intelligence of Members and to the people concerned.

We can hardly claim to run an efficient service if we detain large numbers of adults and children, and deny people awaiting a decision on asylum access to work, health care and benefits. If they get no opportunity to contribute to society but are able to lead only a marginalised existence, there is something badly wrong with the way the system operates. This debate at least allows us to draw attention to one of the symptoms of the problem-the detention of children in Yarl's Wood.

6.54 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): It is fortunate that tonight we have a little more time to debate such an important topic than we would normally have in an end-of-day Adjournment debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate and thank him for his measured tone when discussing all the difficult issues associated with immigration and immigrant detention, and the particular issues associated with Yarl's Wood. I know that he takes a great personal interest in the centre, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall). I am proud of the way that things have improved at Yarl's Wood. I do not have as long a history with the centre as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, but we all agree that there have been major improvements, and I am pleased that he acknowledged that.

The UK Border Agency has 11 immigration removal centres providing around 3,000 bed spaces. As the hon. Gentleman said, Yarl's Wood is the main centre for single women and families, providing 405 bed spaces, of which 284 are reserved for those who are part of the detained fast-track process-that is, people who enter the country and whose cases are dealt with quickly, increasingly within weeks or months of their arrival-and for foreign national former prisoners awaiting deportation. Although there are issues about how long that process takes, I will not deal with that today, as it is not the subject of the debate. I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman about the matter if he wishes, as it affects his constituency. Sixty of the rooms at Yarl's Wood, or 121 beds, are set aside for family accommodation in a dedicated unit, so they are separated from the prisoners.

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