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17 Jun 2010 : Column 217WH—continued

That is the problem for children in detention. If only the system actually worked and gave us quicker results, even if those results did not please people and the cases still went through judicial review. I declare an interest: my wife is an immigration lawyer and I worked in a law
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centre before I was elected, and the process does, of course, make work for lawyers. People apply for judicial review only if they have no other option, but at present, they apply for judicial review at the end of a three-year process. If we had dealt with their cases more quickly, some asylum seekers would not have had their children. Some of the children in detention are there because their parents' cases have taken so long to be concluded.

In the spirit of a new Government with a fresh approach, I say that eliminating the backlog and dealing with immigration cases quickly is the best way to solve the problems of needing to build more detention centres and to keep children in detention. I know what the Minister will say: "You were in office for 13 years. Why hasn't this been solved?" Believe me, I and others have been asking Governments for the past 20 years to do something about it.

Administrative delays have become an essential part of immigration policy, which means that people in this country are working illegally because they are waiting for their cases to be concluded. People come to me every week-tomorrow I will see another 50, and on average I deal with 60 immigration cases a week-who are desperate to work but cannot because they are waiting for UKBA to deal with their cases. Some cases take between six and seven years to be concluded. Dealing with those issues must go hand in hand with the Government review.

The Minister's biggest battle will be against the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and ultimately the Chancellor, but the Home Affairs Committee will be on his side arguing, as it has done in the past, his case for more resources for UKBA and to clear the backlog. UKBA is full of good and decent people, but the system needs changing. We have constantly asked for greater expenditure but, obviously, no Minister for Immigration has ever said in a debate, whether in Westminster Hall or the main Chamber, "Please can we have more money?" That would breach the convention of Government. The Select Committee will say that for him.

Even in the current climate, providing resources will save the Government millions and millions of pounds spent every year on detaining people, including families and children, and forcibly removing those who have been here for seven or eight years. Let us not get into that situation. Let us deal with cases as quickly and efficiently as possible so that we do not have to detain or lock up children any more. We can allow people their chance of a fair hearing before the courts and eventually before the Minister, and then the results that the Government put forward must be accepted.

3.1 pm

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): Like the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his appointment. I have known him for some time and, given the values that I know he has, I think that he will balance the need to reform our asylum system, to ensure that people who do not have a right to be in the country return home, with compassion for those who come here seeking sanctuary. It is a great privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East. He referred to his work in the previous Parliament as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and its report on the issue before us today.

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Immigration and asylum, which are too often conjoined, are important in my constituency. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the UK Border Agency in Croydon Central; its significant presence has a number of effects on my constituency. First, a large number of people are going through either the immigration or the asylum process, which has been the dominant issue in my casework in the four or five weeks I have been an MP. Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman implied, a significant number of UKBA employees are my constituents, so there are some interesting letters from people about their experience of working in the system and how it might be improved. On another occasion, I might share some of those views with my hon. Friend the Minister.

Thirdly, there is a significant impact on our local authority, and the right hon. Gentleman talked about the issues. The London borough of Croydon, as a social services authority, has responsibility for more than 700 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That compares with about 300 children from Croydon, so its social services role is very different from that of many other local authorities. Finally, immigration and asylum is a big issue with residents. Croydon has seen significant demographic change over the past 10 or 20 years. I am pleased to say that in most parts of my constituency, and most parts of the town, relations between different communities are good. However, in a few areas there has been significant activity from the British National party. I am pleased that it did not make the predicted breakthrough at the recent local elections.

Immigration and asylum was also a significant issue in the general election campaign. I suspect that other right hon. and hon. Members here today were contacted by Citizens for Sanctuary during the general election and asked to sign the sanctuary pledge. It gave me far and away my most uncomfortable moment during the campaign because I strongly feel that it is inappropriate to detain children, but, given that the party manifesto did not contain a specific commitment to end the practice, I felt that it was inappropriate for me to make a pledge without confidence that it could be delivered. The issue is important to me personally and to my constituency. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has visited Yarl's Wood on several occasions and has spoken publicly about how distressing he found seeing children who are effectively behind bars.

The evidence in favour of changing the approach of the previous Government has been mounting for some time. The first UK study of its kind on the subject was published on 15 October last year in "Child Abuse & Neglect: the International Journal". A team of doctors examined 24 children detained at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre. They found that the majority were experiencing mental and physical health difficulties related to being in detention. The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics and Child Health, of General Practitioners and of Psychiatrists, and the UK Faculty of Public Health produced a long and detailed report. Dr Philip Collins, a forensic adolescent psychiatrist representing the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

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On 17 February this year, we had the report of Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children's Commissioner for England:

While acknowledging that health care standards improved, the report states that significant areas require attention, saying that

the next evening, and was found to have a fracture.

There is also the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons, which, to be fair to the previous Government, noted that conditions, services and support for children, including a new school and better health care, have improved:

As I say, the evidence that the policy the previous Government pursued was wrong has been mounting for some time. It must surely be possible to balance the need to remove those with no right to be in this country with the need to protect the welfare of children. I was glad to see in the coalition agreement a commitment to end the detention of children, which takes on the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations and, arguably, goes a little further. My hon. Friend the Minister has announced that the review is under way. I hope that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will confirm that the official Opposition will reconsider their approach.

I have a few questions for my hon. Friend before I close. The right hon. Member for Leicester East touched on the first: how long will the review take? I understand that while it is being carried out, some detention will continue but a time scale would be helpful. In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend ran through the options that will be considered as part of the review; one was potentially separating families so some family members could remain in their home. I was pleased to hear that he recognised that that would be contentious. If we move from detaining children to breaking up families, it could be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire. Will the Minister tell us more about the pilot scheme looking at possibilities away from detention that UKBA has been running in Glasgow? The initial results showed that there had been some success, with people voluntarily choosing to return to their country of origin.

Will my hon. Friend tell us a little about the case management approach that a number of other countries have adopted in recent years to end the practice of detention? He talked a little about that in his opening remarks, but I understand that the policy that has been pursued in Sweden, for example, has reached the point where more than three quarters of families now voluntarily agree to return to their place of origin.

In conclusion, I thank you, Mr Weir, for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I was extremely gratified to see that the commitment to act on this issue was in the
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coalition agreement. I am also gratified to see that the Minister has already acted to set up a review, and I look forward to hearing how he intends to take it forward.

3.10 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The issue is important not only because of the numbers of children who are detained, but, sadly, because it symbolises how far the Labour Government had gone, in some aspects, from the ideals that motivate many millions of the party's supporters.

When I raised the issue on the Floor of the House about two years ago, I was one of the first people to do so. I have visited Oakington detention centre and Yarl's Wood, and I have had two debates on the Floor of the House about children in detention. As hon. Members will have heard earlier, and as they will certainly have read in the documentation, no reputable organisation defends this practice, which almost certainly puts us in breach of the European convention on human rights. All reputable organisations-whether it is United Nations organisations in this country, Save the Children, the Refugee Council or Liberty-are united in opposition to this practice.

The practice of detaining children is wrong in principle. What are we doing detaining children in custody when they have committed no crime? Hon. Members might be surprised to know that when I discuss the issue with friends and colleagues in foreign legislatures-even those in third-world countries-they are surprised that Britain, of all countries, detains children indefinitely. When looking at these issues, we must always remember that the history of empire means that people look to Britain to set an example, but we are not setting one on this matter.

Detention was wrong in principle, and it was almost certainly in breach of a number of human rights conventions, but it was also wrong in practice. I know that because I have visited the detention centres. Ministers will tell us about the improvements, and they will tell us that everything is the parents' fault because they should have left when they were supposed to. However, when we go to the detention centres to meet the families and the children, particularly if we have children ourselves, it is brought home to us on a level that we cannot put down on paper-even in excellent reports such as those by the Home Affairs Committee-what it means to children to be detained and deprived of their liberty. However wonderful the facilities, the children cannot run outside as far as the eye can see. As far as they are concerned, they are behind four walls. They have almost certainly been brought into detention in traumatic circumstances, such as after a morning raid, and they find themselves locked up for reasons they can scarcely comprehend-and locked up, in their view, is what they are. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who will speak for the Opposition, I have actually visited the detention centres and the children. Detention is a restriction of children's liberty, and they face the trauma that that entails.

There are also issues about the conditions, some of which were dealt with by the Labour party when it was in government, but some of which were not. At
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Yarl's Wood, in particular, there is an inflammable atmosphere. We have just had riots, and there have been all sorts of problems. Most recently-earlier this year-women were on hunger strike. Part of that inflammable atmosphere has to do with the underlying tension about the fact that children are detained at Yarl's Wood.

Party colleagues will say that the parents chose not to go home at the first time of asking, so they are responsible for their children's being in custody. Whenever I raise the issue on the Floor of the House, I hear that it is not the Government's fault and that the parents are responsible, but where in the practice of justice and in the way in which this country is run are we in the business of punishing children for what their parents have done?

Keith Vaz: There is another issue, which I raised in my speech. Why do people have to wait so long for their cases to be dealt with? Does my hon. Friend agree that dealing with cases in a more timely fashion and clearing the Home Office backlog would help to make the system more humane? She is absolutely right about the detention of children, but the reason why we have so many cases is that they are not being dealt with quickly enough.

Ms Abbott: My right hon. Friend has great experience as a constituency MP. He probably does more immigration casework than any constituency MP, and he has been doing it for 23 years. Added to that is his experience as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. He makes an excellent point: the delays help to create an intolerable situation for people trapped in the system.

I am one of the longest-serving Members of the House present today, and I remember when detention centres were introduced. The House was told that they would be used only for short periods while we fast-tracked cases and deported people. Had the House been told that children, in particular, would be in these centres for months-there have even been cases of children being in them for nearly a year-it might have taken a very different attitude. A system that was meant to be used for short periods of detention while people's cases were fast-tracked has turned into one-I have visited the detention centres myself-in which people and their children are held in limbo. That is one of the things that make this practice so unacceptable.

As I said, the detention of children is wrong in principle; it is wrong because it is an infringement of their liberty. It is also wrong because, in a way, we are making children and families suffer for the issues in our system, and the delays are very much part of that. We set a very poor example to other countries and other jurisdictions if we cannot construct a system in which it is not necessary to detain children.

The purpose of the detention centres, apart from expediting removals, was to act as a deterrent. There has been a strong feeling over the past 13 years that the grimmer and more exacting we made the regime for asylum seekers and immigrants, the less likely they were to come here. However, people must recognise that, for better or worse, the push-factors behind people migrating and seeking asylum are very great, and the idea that turning the screw one more time will see numbers drop has proved false.

We need to focus as never before on having an efficient and speedy system, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and I have spent
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23 years struggling with the delays. In the long run, we also have to deal with the circumstances in people's countries of origin that make them think, in their desperation, that they will chance their arm by coming to this country.

After 23 years of immigration and asylum casework, I would add that we also need to deal with some of the so-called immigration and legal advisers who prey on our constituents and give them false advice and false hope. Often, it is not the would-be immigrants or asylum seekers who put themselves on the path of collision with the authorities, but the advice they get from people who are feeding off them and making money out of them, even though they have little money to spend.

In the immediate term, we need to deal with the ongoing inefficiencies in the system and bear down on some of the lawyers and so-called immigration advisers. Although we are obviously very constrained, we also need, in the very long term, to create the right conditions in people's regions of origin so that it is not necessary for them to flee here. That is the way to deal with the system.

Successive bodies and individuals have tried to get past Governments to deal with this issue. It was a particular preoccupation of a previous Children's Commissioner and it is a preoccupation of the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, who did a comprehensive report on the issue two or three years ago. As I said, every reputable organisation that has looked at this has said that the detention of children is wrong in principle and detrimental to children in practice. Medical work has been done on the consequences of the stressful situation for children, and it is very alarming. I have said before, including to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, when she was a Minister: how can we, the politicians, agree to keep children in circumstances that would horrify us if they were proposed for our own children?

It must be wrong to punish children for the alleged infractions of their parents. There must be a better way than that. The way, of course, as the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) said, is not to split families but to bear down on the aspects of the system-whether the advice that is given or the speed with which cases are dealt with-that lead to people being in such a plight. What has been happening is wrong. There must be a way forward that does not involve splitting up families.

I have raised the issue time and again in the House and in questions, and I have visited detention centres, not because there are votes in worrying about the children in those centres but because I felt that what was happening was wrong, and that there must be a better way. It gives me no pleasure to say that it has taken a new Government to take a fresh look at the question. I hope they will not let the tribulations of office and its practical difficulties deflect them from ending what has been this country's shame: the detention of innocent children in detention centres.

3.21 pm

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