Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD):
Thank you, Mr Weir, for calling me to speak for the first time in Westminster Hall. It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who spoke as powerfully as ever on the
issue in question. It was a great pleasure to hear her speak at the Liberty annual general meeting on Saturday; she spoke movingly about many issues, and I wish her the best of luck with her forthcoming selection process. I shall not say that I support her, as that might do her more damage than anything else.
I am delighted that the debate has been obtained, because the issue is very important. I have always felt that a good test of the underlying morals and values of a country is the way it treats people who cannot defend or look after themselves, and the most vulnerable people in society. That description applies to all sorts of groups, and child detainees are one of them. We fail the test incredibly badly in relation to them; we can talk another time about how well we do in other respects. It is a matter of great shame to this country that we treat people so badly.
The topic of the debate is alternatives to child detention. The main alternative that I can think of to detaining 1,000 children a year is not to detain them. That, above all, is what I want to say. We simply should not detain them. The suggestion that we should detain the family but not the children is at least as bad. We should not even consider something that tears families apart at what is often a difficult time for them. That leaves the question of what we can do with the children in the case in question, and before I discuss that I want to explain why I am concerned about the issue.
Cambridge has a great history as somewhere that is very multicultural and tolerant, with people from various backgrounds, and a number of people there have been involved in various ways with detainees. I might mention, in relation to the remarks of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), that the Conservative candidate in Cambridge was one of the Conservatives who signed the sanctuary pledge; ours was one of very few constituencies where every candidate did so. I am delighted that we did, and I wish it had happened elsewhere.
We are also very near the Oakington detention centre, which has a sad and sorry history. Children are not the main focus there, but recently it hit the news because of the death of one gentleman in detention in April. I am currently dealing with a case of serious assault there. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington has been there to look around. I spoke to her earlier about my request to do so too: that visit was scheduled, but has now been delayed. I fear that my speaking here today means that it will be delayed further, but I look forward to the chance to see it.
Keith Vaz: On that point-I know the hon. Gentleman was not here for some of the earlier speeches-when the Select Committee asked to make a visit it took a long time to get that sorted out. When we got there, I think 10 Home Office officials attended, and only about three from Serco. There was a total of about 15; the room was full. Is it the hon. Gentleman's wish, as it is my hope, that the new Government will perhaps let us in more often, if we ask?
Dr Huppert: It is indeed a problem getting in; my predecessor, David Howarth, tried to get in and was told that it was not possible for him to do that. It is somewhat worrying if there are institutions in this country in a state such that MPs cannot be allowed in to have a look.
Ms Abbott: I urge the hon. Gentleman to be persistent. I had to be, but we cannot have MPs in effect being barred from going to such institutions. Otherwise, we are left to wonder what they are trying to hide.
Dr Huppert: Indeed; I plan to be persistent. I accept the fact that unexpected circumstances sometimes mean that things must be cancelled. One deferral is fine, but if the arrangement keeps being deferred I shall be more concerned, and shall certainly raise the matter here.
To move on to the issue of children, we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Croydon Central about the effects of detention on mental health; we have heard about its effects on physical health and overall well-being, and about the future that we are providing for the children in question. It is hard to see how any of that fits with the UK Border Agency's statutory duty under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and the way in which it is supposed to treat children, or with article 37 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which states that detention should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. It would be hard to say that that is being carried out.
Another issue is the advice and help that the children and their parents get. I had planned to speak for longer and to discuss legal aid for Refugee and Migrant Justice, but early-day motion 191 on that topic was discussed on the Floor of the House today, so I shall not take up time with it now; nevertheless, it is essential that we provide the right support to people.
The way in which we deal with age-disputed children is also a real issue. With very young children things are clear for all concerned. They are children, and there is no doubt. They should not be detained. We need to provide much more family-friendly and child-friendly solutions. There is a concern about children who claim to be, say, 17; it is hard to tell whether such a claim is honest. We need a clear, fair process to try to establish the age of those people. In many cases it will not be hard. We need a clear routine that appears fair and does not seem-as in so many cases that I have been made aware of-like arbitrary justice, with decisions being made semi-arbitrarily, based on various factors, about whether the truth is being told. It is hard on teenagers who are already in very difficult circumstances to tell them that there is no way for them to interact sensibly with the process.
The question was raised earlier whether we should punish children for the sins of their parents. I do not see seeking sanctuary in this country as a sin or something worthy of punishment. It is worthy of rapid decisions about whether people are genuine sanctuary seekers, who should be coming to this country-and we should open ourselves as we would hope other countries would, to support people in need-or whether there is something false about the story, in which case things are different. In any event, punishment is not the route. Trying to control the people coming to this country by being as nasty as possible to them while they are here is not worthy of this country. There are other issues that must be dealt with, and international development is clearly the right process for that, as has been mentioned.
The UK Border Agency needs to work faster. I am constantly coming across cases that have taken years to process, and that gives rise to questions about how
fairly and rapidly the system works. The aim must be to reach a decision quickly and fairly about whether people are genuine sanctuary seekers, so that if they are not they go, and if they are they can stay. At the moment, it takes far too long. Competence is a serious issue in relation to the UKBA in several wider respects, which have even affected people who came to work for me in my former profession, from such places as the USA. There is something fundamentally wrong, in my experience, with the way the agency operates.
We need to end child detention as quickly as possible. I am delighted that that is in the coalition agreement. It is a fantastic aspect of the coalition that we can finally end such an awful thing. We owe the people of this country better than child detention, and I look forward to our fulfilling our aim in that respect.
I have some questions for the Minister, and to help him respond fully it may help him if I go through them before I make any other comments, and pick up on hon. Members' points. As to Dungavel, what, currently, will happen if a family in Scotland are required to leave the country-to be deported? Where are they sent, and how is that dealt with?
The Minister spoke about local authorities, and working more closely with them. I wonder whether the Government are planning to work with all local authorities equally, or whether they will build on the existing model that applies to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It is a slightly different model, and involves specialist local authorities that are particularly adept at dealing with these challenging issues.
What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities to make them aware of the situation regarding children liable to be removed, and of how the process will work? I know that it is early days, but I wonder whether he could give some guidance, because I am sure that the Local Government Association and individual authorities will be keen to know how it will work practically.
I am also interested to know how the Government propose to work with community organisations. We hear a lot about the big society. Like many people, I am keen to know what it actually means. I shall touch on some of the work with community organisations that was under way while my party was in government, but I am keen to hear a bit about the Government's plans. Perhaps, if the Minister is unable to answer here and now, he could provide some information in writing in due course.
This debate is about alternatives to child detention. I have had the opportunity to speak to those who are responsible for the project in Glasgow. I do not know whether the Minister managed that on his visit to Glasgow this week, but I am pleased that he is going around the different nations of the UK to discuss the matter. What progress has there been on the Glasgow project? To date, has any family actually left voluntarily as a result of that very intense intervention, which I believe involves two social workers working with around
four families at a time? I wonder whether there has yet been a success story, because, sadly, there had not been one as I left office, but I have great hopes that the project can deliver some results. It is still early days, but I would be keen to hear an update on it.
The Minister mentioned the assisted voluntary returns package but did not absolutely pledge that it will continue, although I did not hear him say that it would not. I would be keen to hear some clarification on the future of the package, particularly in the current financial situation. It is a reasonably generous package of up to £5,000 per individual, and I wonder whether the Government plan to keep it at that level, and whether the Minister has a hotline to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is his right hon. Friend these days, to ensure that that money will be there to enable the alternatives to progress. I welcome the fact that the Minister is cautious about the separation of families, and I shall touch on that in a moment.
An interesting issue in this area is the impact on human trafficking. Clearly, children are trafficked. If they are never detained, there is a risk that that could become a pull factor for those who have mal-intent towards children. In constructing the review and taking account of views, is there any particular oversight of that threat, so that as the review progresses and proposals come forward, it is considered, and there are not perverse outcomes which none of us in the House would want?
On that, would the Minister pledge to monitor the impact on children in what we might call private fostering? As the previous Minister, I was responsible for this area. There were occasions when adults were detained but the children would be elsewhere, and it could take some time to locate the children when the parents and family themselves had decided to separate. That lays open terrible potential risks to children in terms of child protection and safety. Again, if the review is well done and well constructed, the matter could possibly be dealt with, but there is a potential perverse outcome which the Government need to be aware of and plan against.
Has the Minister had any recent legal advice about section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 on the duty of care for children, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), and its impact on the review? There has been previous legal advice, but I wonder whether the Minister is seeking legal advice about the impact of that legislation.
There has been some discussion of the importance of legal advice, with which I certainly agree. I wonder whether any further action has been proposed, either as part of the review or separately, on improving legal advice, which has dogged all of us as constituency Members who deal with casework but also anyone in government who has to deal with these challenges. Does the Minister have any thoughts on that?
The current proposal is to continue some detention, but, according to the coalition agreement-I stand to be corrected if I have misunderstood it-there is an intent to hold a family with children for between 24 and 72 hours only. What would happen in the current situation if a family with children who are already in detention launch a judicial review at the 11th hour? Will the Minister ever continue to detain the family? Does he
rule that out, or do the Government not currently have a definite position? I hope that because I have given him notice of questions, he will be able to answer them fully.
We heard some useful contributions from Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has spoken many times on this subject. I should point out that the backlog has been a bugbear for us all as constituency MPs, and for anyone in the House who has any interest in the matter, but it has reduced. As a constituency MP and in my previous role, I have seen that and can testify to it.
I do, however, share a concern with my right hon. Friend about resources. Will progress go backwards now, given that there will be tight controls on and reductions in Government spending? Let us be honest: we are interested in this issue, but many people up and down the country would not see it as a priority. I wonder whether it is a priority of the current Government to make resources available to ensure that the backlog continues to go down, and that there is support for those going through the system so that they can get the right advice.
My right hon. Friend rightly highlighted the fact that the backlog does not help the situation regarding detention. Families who see other families staying for a long time because they have been caught up in the backlog are led to believe that there is not a real prospect of their leaving.
Keith Vaz: I do not want to prejudge my hon. Friend's memoirs detailing her period in government before they eventually come out, but is it the case that the Home Office did not ask for more resources, or was it just not given more resources? Was there a plea to the Treasury that if there were more resources, more could be done about the issue?
Meg Hillier: I worked with two Home Secretaries who were robust in defending the Home Office's need for resources for several areas, but, as the Minister will find out in his new role, resources are always challenging in a Department such as the Home Office. There are many priorities, and every time resources are put into one area, there is a risk that another area will bubble up, as I believe he with his greater experience dealing with these matters in Parliament will know.
Resources were always an issue, but it was not as simple as that. Often, local authorities did not want cases decided as quickly as they could have been because of the challenge of then housing and providing for families. There had to be some negotiation so that families who were able to stay were properly provided for in local authorities.
Ms Abbott: Would my hon. Friend agree that delays, which bear on child detention, are part of a process that feeds on itself? The more delays there are, the more people have shoddy legal advisers who tell them, basically, to play for time. If at some point we could bear down on the delays, it would save us money in the medium term.
Meg Hillier: I believe that my hon. Friend would agree that, as constituency MPs, we have seen reductions in the delays. I certainly am seeing that, and the figures that the Government can provide will show that they have reduced. Yes, as she rightly says, there is a self-propelling, negative cycle.
The hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) raised some questions about the Opposition's position, and I shall make that clear. Actually, the approach of the Government is very much the approach that was under way as the previous Government left office.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said that she has visited detention centres and seen what goes on there. I, too, have visited them, and that was one reason I was keen, as the Minister then responsible, to have a review and to work with organisations that had an interest in the matter. As I communicated to her and, in particular, to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and who was very interested in the matter, I was frustrated that a great deal of energy was being spent on argument and disagreement, not solutions. Any solution would not have solved the problem overnight. Do Members not think that in the past 13 years the Government would have stopped detention overnight if it were that easy? It is not that easy, and that is the reality of government.
Meg Hillier: Could I make some progress, please? Let us be clear that Yarl's Wood also houses foreign national prisoners, not just families with children. We should get it into the debate that families with children are not the only people housed there.
I worry that my hon. Friend has forgotten our conversations in which I explained my plans to revisit some of the issues surrounding children in detention. Some work was done by previous Ministers responsible for immigration to improve support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, create expert local authorities that were able to deal better with those children, and create a children's champion within the UK Border Agency.
At the end of last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Mr Woolas), who in the past had focused more widely on the issue of children in the immigration system, spoke to me about his desire to see a particular ministerial focus on the issue of children in detention. He asked me to take on that responsibility. As I have said, I wanted to look at the whole picture, and I began that process by meeting a number of organisations involved, and the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire and the former Member for Bedford, because of their particular interest in this matter. Out of that meeting, held under the Chatham House rule-I will not name those who were there, although hon. Members would not be worried about that-we came up with the view that early legal advice was important, and that the early legal advice project already under way needed to be boosted. I subsequently met the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and ensured that we worked closely with it, because of its desire to see a difference in that area. That was a helpful partnership and I also worked with local groups.