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10 Feb 2010 : Column 1029

I should like to correct a slight misapprehension from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz): all children are offered an education at Yarl's Wood. The school is available for children from nursery to A-level age, but, of course, it is not compulsory. Every time I review a child in detention and whether to extend that, I get information on whether they are engaging with school or nursery or whatever is appropriate, and why they do not attend if that is the case. They are important indicators for me and I need to make decisions on the basis of as much information as I can get. When the Home Affairs Committee visited Yarl's Wood, it was lunch time, which is why there were no children in the school, but the school is a good facility, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire acknowledged. The improvements have been acknowledged by others, including Sir Al Aynsley Green, the Children's Commissioner for England, and the independent monitoring board. However, we are not complacent and, as the Minister responsible, I certainly would not want to be complacent on this important issue. We continue to look to identify further enhancements.

Patrick Hall: On the subject of the improvements to the educational facilities at Yarl's Wood that have been brought about by Serco, I understand that each child is offered 30 hours a week tuition, but that is voluntary. For younger children, that provision is accompanied by a nursery that is open seven days a week.

Meg Hillier: That is indeed the case, but we are looking to improve facilities for 16 to 18-year-olds in particular, and we are creating a new kitchen and dining area to enable families to cook meals together, which we hope will help to maintain family bonds and a sense of normality-not to mention assist reintegration, whether in the country of origin or in the UK, even if only on a temporary basis.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire also mentioned health care. My primary concern is that detainees receive the right standard of care and support while they are in our care. I looked into this issue closely before today's debate. Good-quality care can be provided by the private sector as much as by the national health service. The health care department at Yarl's Wood provides a good standard of care, which is comparable to primary care found in the community. Of course, referrals to secondary health care would be within the NHS.

All the health care staff at the centre are caring, qualified professionals, and no less able to care for detainees than the national health service does in the community. Residents are all seen by a nurse within two hours of arrival, and given an appointment to see a GP within 24 hours unless the nurse believes an earlier appointment is necessary. Thereafter they have access to the service on demand. We also vaccinate children and provide support to expectant and nursing mothers-an issue close to my heart as I am one myself, and I have always been alert to the extra pressure that pregnancy can put on women in detention, especially if they have other children.

I should also point out that health care in all our centres is subject to the standards, audit and inspection programme by the Care Quality Commission as national health service facilities. Indeed only a few weeks ago,
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the commission was at Yarl's Wood inspecting the services there, and we look forward to receiving its report in due course. I shall make a particular point of alerting both the hon. Members with a constituency interest in that report when it is published.

We are ensuring that we have proper screening for mental health issues, so that anyone with a mental illness is identified on arrival, together with the best pathway for their treatment. That is important because, as hon. Members have pointed out, that can be one of the key hidden health factors for someone facing the difficulties of detention.

As I have said, we really do not want to detain children at all and would much prefer that families accept the decision of deportation on their case and leave the UK promptly-although if they accepted the decision they would of course leave voluntarily. However, while we do not currently envisage a position in which we would never detain-I would not want to go that far at this point-we are committed to exploring alternatives that at the very least reduce the number of families being detained while ensuring that they depart the UK promptly when required.

Following the Kent pilot, a three-year pilot has been running in Glasgow since June 2009. I know where it is because I passed the properties when I was last visiting the area-before I had my baby-although they were not up and running at the time. However, I will visit Glasgow next week to see it for myself and, if possible, to talk to some of the families, although that can be difficult, given that they are all in flats. The project is providing intensive support to families who have exhausted all rights to remain in the UK, helping them to confront the issues delaying their departure.

The 12-month pilot of the migrant helpline was in Ashford, Kent, and that was aimed at providing accommodation, health care, education and legal services to the families with no basis of stay. It has been acknowledged that that was not a success, with only one family departing under the assisted voluntary return scheme. We are learning the lessons of that scheme to take on board in Glasgow.

Alistair Burt: Were the suggestions made in the comprehensive report by the Children's Society, the Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and Bail for Immigration Detainees incorporated into the new project so that some of the concerns raised will not come up again?

Meg Hillier: We looked at a number of issues when we formulated the new programme. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned those organisations and others involved in this area, because I am keen to arrange a round-table meeting with some of those most passionately interested in the issue. Some outside organisations say, "Never detain a child", but we need to maintain an immigration system-that is the Government's responsibility and it is mine on behalf of the Government. I am keen to work with people who favour alternatives to see how we can shape those alternatives and ensure that they work and deliver outcomes that are better for the families and children concerned, while still achieving the ends of an immigration system.

We will accommodate four or five families at any one time for a process that lasts about 12 weeks, and the pilot will be evaluated by Barnardo's and the consultancy
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firm Organisational Development and Support. So far, eight families have been through the project. One family absconded and a second has been removed forcibly. Thus far, there have been no voluntary returns, although two are currently pursuing the voluntary route. It is early days-we are barely more than six months in-but after my visit, I will happily let hon. Members know what is happening.

That is just one initiative, and more can be done, including in communities, because people do not necessarily have to go to special facilities. I look for support from the voluntary sector, especially those with an interest in this area, to prevent families from entering detention in the first place. I have only relatively recently been given responsibility for this area, but I am sometimes a little dismayed by the outside criticisms, which do not always suggest alternatives. It is the Government's responsibility to find alternatives, but I am keen to bring on board those who have concerns, and to discuss with them the practical alternatives and the role that they could play in helping those who are liable for detention to avoid it and to leave the country voluntarily.

The Government are committed to maintaining a firm but fair asylum and immigration system, and the departure of those who do not have a basis to stay here is the most important element of that. It is only fair. I am also responsible, with another hat, for those whom
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we take from UN refugee camps around the world, many of whom are vulnerable and have been in camps for 20 years. If we allow only people on our shores to stay-because they have made it here-we can lose sight of our wider humanitarian responsibilities as a responsible nation. It is important that we recognise their needs as well.

I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford will join me in calling for those who are critical to work with me. That is a genuine offer. I want to see how we can work together to ensure that these alternatives work and result in a reduction in the number of children with their parents in detention.

I thank the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire for raising this debate. We have been fortunate to have a good length of time. The welfare of those in our care is at the heart of what the UK Border Agency and Serco do at Yarl's Wood. It is a challenging area of work, the staff do a good job in difficult circumstances, and I know that he recognises the progress that has been made. We are not complacent, however. A continuous programme is needed to look at how we can improve areas of service at Yarl's Wood and to look at alternatives to immigration detention.

Question put and agreed to.

7.28 pm

House adjourned.

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