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Yarl's Wood operates in accordance with the detention centre rules 2001 and the UK Border Agency's operating standards. It is monitored, as hon. Members mentioned, by the centre's independent monitoring board. As the Minister responsible since December for this area of policy, I echo the hon. Gentleman's comments about the importance of the board's work. As a Minister, it is helpful to have independent advice and I welcome it. The independent monitoring board has free access to all parts of the centre in order to ensure that residents
are treated well. The board hears requests and complaints, and there is no attempt to stifle that. The centre is inspected by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. The most recent inspection was in November last year.
Yarl's Wood, therefore, can hardly be called a closed place of detention. I appreciate what hon. Members said about doors being locked, but that is the nature of a detention centre. It is my intention, however, as the Minister responsible to be as open as possible about what we do there. We have nothing to hide about the way in which we treat those in our care. There may be a debate about whether we should detain families and children, but we are open about what we do. It is important to make that clear.
In the time available, I will attempt to answer all the points raised. Let us be clear about who is at Yarl's Wood. When we talk about the detention of children, it is not children on their own. It is children with their parents. The only case where we would ever detain a child on its own would be an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, who might have arrived on a late night flight and who, for various safety reasons, would need to be held in a secure environment, rather than being released into any other facility. That would happen only in exceptional circumstances. Of course, it is not Government policy to deport children who are on their own.
Yarl's Wood is a place where children are detained only with their parents, and at any time the parents can choose to leave on a voluntary basis. It is those who refuse to leave on a voluntary basis who are at some stage detained at Yarl's Wood. Those detained are removable people whose case has been concluded-they have reached what we would consider to be the end of the line in legal terms-foreign national prisoners awaiting deportation, or those on a fast track. Barriers, as hon. Members said, are invariably legal or related to documentation. We do not generally hold backlog cases until they are removable. I can testify to that from my constituency case load.
Meg Hillier: I will write to my hon. Friend with those numbers. We have issues with certain countries where documentation is difficult. I do not have the numbers to hand, but I know I can provide them and will write to him after the debate.
One of the issues raised-I apologise that they are not in perfect order-was when children are detained and how they are detained. I want to debunk some myths about what happens. We hear talk of "dawn raids", but that term is not helpful-we often hear it misused; it involves emotive language; and, in any case, we do not recognise it in practice. We carry out all visits to home addresses as sensitively as possible, and it is important that we do so, because otherwise there can be difficulties detaining children.
Meg Hillier: If a child or children are in a family group that is being detained, a member of the team will at all times be aware of them specifically, and their welfare will be that staff member's prime concern.
Meg Hillier: I am not saying that; I am saying that such activity would be avoided. I have pointed out that someone is always there to ensure that the child's welfare is maintained, but sometimes, to ensure that a family are together and therefore the child is not at school and detained at school, which would be worse, it is important to ensure that the parents are with the child. This is a challenging area, and I can go into some of my plans to look at other options as the Minister now responsible for the matter, but there are important issues about whether we keep children with their parents. I should not want children to be separated from their parents, and, importantly, we must recognise that as part of the issue when detaining children: the parents refuse to leave, and they should take some responsibility for the situation.
Several hon. Members mentioned the incident at Yarl's Wood on Monday. I shall give the House some information about it and then explain the next steps that I am taking. A number of women in the centre began to refuse to eat food in the canteen over the weekend in protest at their detention. They congregated in a courtyard and corridor at lunchtime for several hours. Staff maintained open dialogue with them about their protest, and by early evening the centre returned to normality.
The incident's handling is subject to a management review, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment or speculate on the outcome at this stage. I want to see the outcome before I consider whether any next steps are necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who has given me his apologies because he has had to rush off to a constituency engagement, made a number of points. He talked about a tortuous legal system, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), and I shall touch on that later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington also raised the issue of people wanting to work, but that is not Government policy and we do not contemplate either an amnesty or rights to work for those who are liable to deportation. It is important that we get that straight. The people at that detention centre and anywhere else in the detention estate are there because they have refused to leave the country voluntarily. Some have turned down generous packages of support and chosen to take the detention route.
I also contest my hon. Friend's suggestion that people are moved from one place to another to evade representation by Members-I think that is what he meant, although I was not quite clear about his point. People are not moved from one place to another except to facilitate deportation. They may be moved from Yarl's Wood to a closer centre prior to a flight, but they are not moved without reason. Commercial confidentiality relates to what we pay for contracts, not to individual detainees.
There is a degree of confidentiality in respect of detainees, just as there is on any other matter in the UK Border Agency, the Home Office or any part of Government, because we must ensure that we adhere to our data protection responsibilities.
My hon. Friend also wanted me to comment on whether there was any physical violence by staff towards detainees on Monday. I reassure him that there absolutely was not. The entire incident was witnessed by the independent monitoring board, which has raised no concerns, and captured on CCTV. Several hon. Members asked about that. The CCTV footage will be available to the IMB and management review. We have no secrets; there is nothing to hide in that respect. Let me also be clear that detainees were offered refreshment throughout. The four ringleaders are now in Colnbrook awaiting transfer to prison beds because of their disruptive behaviour.
Ms Abbott: My hon. Friend said that when immigration officials and other appropriate officials carry out their-I know that she deprecates the phrase-dawn raids, there is always somebody there who has the interests of the child at heart. Is she saying to the House that she is confident that these raids, with people being taken from their homes in this way, do not traumatise the children?
Meg Hillier: Clearly, any child going through this process will find it very challenging. As my hon. Friend rightly predicted I would say, the Government have certain responsibilities as regards immigration and immigration control. If she will wait to the end of my comments, I can talk to her about some of the work on alternatives that is under way. I also reiterate that parents have responsibility. As a parent myself, I have some responsibility for what my children do, what harm's way I put them into, and what situations they are in. Equally, parents who are facing detention or deportation have made a choice not to leave voluntarily; they therefore have some responsibility, and it is important to recognise that. I would not want parents to be taken away and children left behind-I would not support such a difficult situation.
Alistair Burt: I am grateful to the Minister, who is dealing with this very sensitively, but I would not like this point to go unanswered. Some of the parents are frightened about being sent back to where they have come from, and frightened for their children, so they fight to stay; that is their judgment. However, she is somewhat painting a picture that parents are making a deliberate choice to go into detention and have their children with them as if the alternative were an easy one. I would like her to recognise that for many parents, that choice is not easy at all. That is the dilemma in which they are caught and which the system has somehow to try to deal with.
Meg Hillier: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. His final comment is the main point: the system has somehow to deal with this dilemma, but many people will choose anything rather than willingly return to a situation. That can be for all sorts of reasons, and not just because they feel in physical danger. In the end, the parents make the choices that face them, however difficult they are, so some responsibility needs to lie there.
As I said, we would rather not have to do this: we would much prefer that families left the UK voluntarily when the courts have upheld the decision that they must leave. Nearly as many families left the UK under the assisted voluntary returns scheme last year as were removed, so the incentive of having some money and support to resettle has had some impact. Families do not always take up our offers of financial and reintegration assistance, and in those circumstances we are left with a dilemma. Do we leave people where they are, as some of my hon. Friends would suggest, or do we seek to deport them? If we seek to deport them and they do not willingly wish to go, we find ourselves with no alternative but to use detention in order to enforce their departure-a fact acknowledged by the Home Affairs Committee in its recent report. We are considering alternatives, and I will touch on those towards the end of my remarks. That is partly why I want to make some progress. I would hate to run out of time and be unable to go into how we could consider proceeding in a way that might help to satisfy some of the concerns expressed by hon. Friends and hon. Members.
The decision to detain a family is not lightly taken-it is a last resort, and it is intended to be only for the shortest possible period once appeal rights have been exhausted, there are no outstanding legal barriers, and a flight has been booked for a few days' time. The welfare of any child is paramount in that process, and full consideration is given to all the welfare issues given that they are going to be in a different, and more difficult, situation from that of children not in the detention centre. As we heard, there is concern about children being taken out just prior to their exams. The timing of educational examinations, where known, will be taken into account before the removal process starts.
Although our intention is that detention will be short, lasting just a few days, unfortunately some families and their legal representatives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said, wait until they have been detained and given their flight details before submitting applications for judicial review. The vast majority of those applications are spurious and fall at the first hurdle. That fact is acknowledged not just by the UK Border Agency and the Home Office but by the National Audit Office and the Home Affairs Committee. That said, when removal is deferred, the decision to maintain the detention of a family is subject to a regular and rigorous control process, including ministerial review in the case of all children held for more than 28 days, a matter that I take very seriously. My two predecessor Ministers with responsibility for the matter took it very seriously as well. I call in officials to talk to them about individual cases when I have concerns. That is a serious responsibility that lies on my desk, and I recognise the human lives involved.
I will not go further into why we detain people, because I have spoken enough about that. We have touched on the issue of documentation, and sometimes establishing nationality and identity or determining whether an individual qualifies for leave to enter the UK can take time. That is particularly true of establishing nationality, because some individuals destroy their papers and their suspected home country will not accept them.
Ms Abbott: Will my hon. Friend tell me how many children have been held for longer than 28 days? She says, and I have heard a succession of Ministers in her position say, that the parents have made a choice and that that is why their children are in detention. Can she tell me of any other area of public policy in which we make children suffer because of the choices of their parents? The role of the state is normally to protect children from bad choices that their parents make.
Meg Hillier: I will provide figures in a little while about the number of children detained for different periods, but there are many areas in which children suffer because of the choices of their parents, such as when a parent is in a domestic prison. I have spoken to head teachers in my constituency who have known children who have come home from school to find that Dad or Mum has been in prison, which affects them massively. There are other matters on which children are affected by the decisions of their parents, and we do need to detain people on certain grounds.
Statistics were mentioned in the debate, and I wish to make it clear that what we provided in the IMB report was management information. Under the rules that now govern the release of Government statistics, we are unable to release figures unless they have been agreed by the Office for National Statistics, and we need to be careful about how we present them. I will therefore be careful with the information that I am about to present in response to my hon. Friend's question about the number of children in detention.
In the last quarter of 2009, 315 children entered detention. In the financial year 2008-09, 1,116 children entered detention and slightly more departed it-clearly some cases would have been in both financial years. Some 539 of those children, slightly fewer than half, were removed, and 629 were released. I should put it on record that those statistics are based on management information and are not subject to the detailed checks that apply to the publication of national statistics. They may include some double counting, as some children may have been detained, released and detained again. The average length of detention was 16 days in 2008-09, and for this year, 2009-10, it is slightly less so far. Of the children detained on 30 September 2009, 25 had been detained for seven days or fewer, five for eight to 14 days, five for 15 to 28 days and 10 for 29 or more days but less than two months. None was detained for longer than that.
Delays and backlogs were mentioned. They have been an enormous problem, but I know from my constituency case load as well as from my work in the Home Office that most of the backlog will be cleared by this March and the vast majority by 2011. We inherited a very big backlog, but there has been work to make progress on it and people are already coming to my surgery either facing deportation or having been granted their status. The matter will always be a challenge, and I would never say that it is resolving itself, but the backlog has been massively reduced. I do not have time now to go into the regulation of legal advisers, but the Government share the frustration at legal advisers who do not do their job properly and sometimes misadvise their clients. Let us be frank: they are playing games with people's lives. Since 30 April 2001, it has been a criminal offence for an adviser to provide immigration advice or services unless their organisation is registered with the
Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner-an independent non-departmental public body set up under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999-has been granted a certificate of exemption by that body, or is otherwise covered by the 1999 Act, which includes solicitors and others who are professionally qualified in the field. It is important that we maintain vigilance on that. I talk to many hon. Members who, like me, have large case loads, and we share their concerns. There is always more to be done.
I have answered a number of the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington asked, but she also mentioned delays and blockages in the system. I shall touch on alternatives in a moment, but when there is a request to extend a child's detention by one or two days, for example, I must take into account what would happen to them if they went back into the community, where they would go, their welfare, and what would happen if they were to yo-yo-go out into the community and return to detention within a day or two, with all the travel and upset that that involves, and the hopes that it would raise. I take that very seriously as the Minister responsible. I have sometimes decided that it is more acceptable to leave a child where they are, knowing that they are facing imminent removal, even if they go over a bureaucratic deadline. I re-emphasise that I take such decisions seriously. I must take into account all the advice and information I can gather on each case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford asked whether he could meet me. I am happy to extend an invitation both to him and to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire to talk them through where we are now, and keep them apprised of developments, particularly on alternatives.
Hon. Members have touched on a number aspects of child welfare. Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, which was introduced last November, placed a statutory safeguarding duty on the UK Border Agency. That has given us, and me particularly as the Minister responsible, an opportunity to examine and improve even further the safeguarding of children in our care. That measure was introduced at around the same time that I became the Minister responsible, so I am fortunate, because it gives me an extra opportunity to look at what we do.
Child welfare, which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire touched on, is taken extremely seriously at Yarl's Wood. Robust arrangements are in place to identify any concerns. A multi-disciplinary team, including a social worker from Bedford borough children's services, reviews each child on a weekly basis. When a child's welfare is affected by their continued detention, a detention review is triggered, and we look to release that child and his or her parents. A regular children's forum, complemented by a new children-specific complaints process, provides children with the opportunity to give feedback on their overall experience of their detention, their transport and their stay at the centre. Their comments are important and are very much taken on board.
I shall not go through the long programme of steady improvements that have taken place at Yarl's Wood since Serco took over the operating contract in 2007, because, in all fairness, the hon. Gentleman has more than adequately explained them. Again, I thank him for his balanced tone in this debate.
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