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17 Jun 2010 : Column 229WH—continued

Ms Abbott: I remember our conversations with great clarity. My hon. Friend is a good friend and colleague, but we took diametrically opposed views on the issue of
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children in detention. I thought that it was wrong, and I have always thought that. One argument is that there is a problem because this is not an easy matter, but the real Home Office position was revealed in many statements, which claimed that ultimately, children in detention were not the responsibility of the Government but that it was the fault of their parents. Behind that lies a narrative on immigration that suggests that the more punitive the system is made, the less likely people are to abuse it.

Meg Hillier: I disagree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps I could remind her that we both agreed that we should not let the better be the enemy of the good. I was attempting to improve the system, and I am pleased that we are now seeing further steps along those lines. A better take-up of assisted voluntary return was a particular issue, and I pushed hard for third parties to do that. The Government felt that it was not always appropriate if such matters were dealt with by the person who was deciding on the immigration claim, and I hope that that will be a major part of the review. Excess baggage is not a new issue, but it is an equally important one to help people settle back. We need a clearer process in which people know from the beginning what the options are, and work on that with community groups has been important. Removal directions should be provided in the community. Those things are all part of the plan and the intense work that the UK Border Agency was beginning to undertake, prior to the election.

The previous Government were learning from the best models from abroad, and the new Government are continuing with that. However, we must recognise that even those models from abroad-in Australia and Sweden, for example-allow for children to be detained under difficult circumstances. I refer the House to an Adjournment debate from 10 February 2010, in which I flagged up some of those issues, although at that point I had not met a number of the groups.

I wish this approach well, as it is the way in which the previous Government attempted to deal with the situation. However, it was not easy, and I am a little puzzled. Today the Minister reiterates an announcement of the end of children being detained, and he re-announces a welcome review that was already under way. In his opening speech, he clearly highlighted the likelihood of detention immediately prior to a flight. I refer back to my point about what would happen in the case of a late legal challenge; that is an issue that needs to be tackled and supported by the whole legal process. The Minister also mentioned the Afghanistan centre for Afghan teenagers, and I wonder whether that marks a division in the coalition, especially given the remarks made by the hon. Member for Cambridge.

3.44 pm

Damian Green: I am grateful for the unanimous support for this policy from all sides of the Chamber.

Ms Abbott: First and last time.

Damian Green: Absolutely. This is the second time this week that something has happened to me that I suspect will never happen again. I attended the Citizens for Sanctuary summer party where, as the new Minister for Immigration, one expects to get brickbats, but instead
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I was given a bouquet. I suspect that that will be the last time, so I thought that I would enjoy it while it lasted. This debate is a metaphorical conclusion of that experience.

I am grateful to hon. Members from all parties for their contributions. The only comment that verged on the slightly churlish was the conclusion reached by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who was attempting desperately to find splits in the coalition. I am extremely pleased and proud to be advocating our policy, which was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The hon. Lady will toil in vain if she seeks to find splits in that area.

A number of important practical points were raised and questions asked in the debate, and I will now deal with those. First, let me say that I was remiss in not thanking the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch for all the expertise and personal kindness that she showed when she was in government and I was in opposition.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) rightly mentioned the review by the Home Affairs Committee. As he said, he recognises many of the ideas that the Government have put forward, as many were mentioned in past reviews by that Committee. I look forward to further expert contributions from the Committee. He also went through some of the statistics for children in detention, which I think bear greater examination. He mentioned the figure of just over 1,000 for the number of children in detention in 2009. If that annual figure is broken down, one finds the slightly depressing fact that the numbers go up as we go through the year: the figure for the third quarter is higher than that for the second or first quarters.

As the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said, the central difficulty is about what should be done at the end of the process if a family simply refuses to go. Detention under the system that we are getting rid of was not necessarily effective. Of the 1,068 children who departed from detention in 2008-09, only 539 were removed and 629 were released back. There are clearly difficulties with the efficacy of removal and with taking away detention as an option-something that we are doing for all the reasons that have been advanced during the debate-but even with detention, more children were released back into the community than were removed. The old system was not particularly effective, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Leicester East for stating the actual figures, as they illustrate that fact tellingly.

Meg Hillier: Will the Minister confirm that those who were taken out of detention were never brought back into detention so as to be removed from the country again, or indeed removed from the country by another route?

Damian Green: I am not entirely sure that I understood that question. Is the hon. Lady saying that those who were eventually removed had never been detained and then released, and then detained again and later removed? Is that what she is saying? The honest answer is that I do not know. I was not the Minister at that time. She was. If she says that that is the case, I am grateful for the information.

Many hon. Members have mentioned Yarl's Wood and other detention centres. I have visited Yarl's Wood on several occasions, and in my experience the regime
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got markedly better over the years. Last time I visited, a functioning school was in operation and so on, and it was a much more humane place than it had been in previous years. I pay tribute to the Ministers who were involved in supervising that, as well as to the staff of the UK Border Agency who made sure that it happened. I suspect that we have all had the same experience. However, even when that place was in its most humane phase, it was still disturbing to see children locked up behind bars. That is one of the things that impels our policy.

There was mention of children at Harmondsworth. I may have misunderstood the right hon. Member for Leicester East, because it is my understanding that there are and were no children held at Harmondsworth. If I have misunderstood, I apologise, but I thought that he had said that there were.

Keith Vaz: When we visited, there were no children there. I was just visiting Harmondsworth.

Damian Green: I am grateful for that clarification. The position was not entirely clear.

The point was rightly made about access to local authority services. Local authority social services are embedded at Yarl's Wood; they are there permanently.

My final point about the statistics is that the figure was more than 1,000 and it is now five, so we are doing our best, even in the interim phase while the review is going on, to keep the numbers to an absolute minimum.

Various Members on both sides of the Chamber brought up the issue of delays, which lead to problems in the system. I think that I was being invited by the right hon. Gentleman to give a new time scale for the end of the legacy. Given all his experience, he will excuse me from making such commitments in my second outing at the Dispatch Box, but he will know, from having sat through many of these debates with me in the past four years, that like him, I have been very exercised by the problem of delay.

I dare say that those who were Ministers in the previous Government would not dissent from the basic proposition that the long delays embedded in the system lead to many of the associated problems that we see. Bearing down on those delays and getting rid of the old legacy, as it has been called, as fast as possible is clearly a high priority. That will have beneficial spin-offs throughout the asylum system and, indeed, the wider immigration system.

At various stages, the debate drifted into a general immigration debate, and it is perfectly reasonable that the same points apply in that context. The fewer delays we have, the more likely we are to avoid the problems that we have seen, although it is a fair point-it was made by Ministers in the previous Government and will be made by me-that not every delay in the system is caused by the system. Not every delay is caused by the border agency. Some delay is caused by the legal processes that people have the right to go through and do go through.

Ms Abbott: On the question of delays, one thing that successive Ministers in the previous Administration never understood is that if we, in a panic-usually occasioned by the tabloid press-bear down on one aspect of the system, all that does is displace pressure to
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another aspect. That is why we were never successful in dealing with delays overall. We bore down on one thing-Romanian ladies in headscarves-and then got a bulge of children who claimed to be 18 but were not. So I beg, in a non-party political way, for a strategic, all-embracing approach. That in the end will produce the desired result.

Damian Green: I agree with that point and will seek to take the friendly advice that the hon. Lady offers across the Chamber in that regard.

Gavin Barwell: Does the Minister agree that one of the other reasons for delay and one that causes great frustration to UKBA staff is the difficulty of returning people to certain countries? Will he work with colleagues at the Foreign Office to see whether we can secure improved arrangements in that regard?

Damian Green: Absolutely so. The whole Government are working very hard to ensure that those who have no right to remain here are returned to their countries of origin. My hon. Friend, who has huge expertise already in this matter, representing Croydon Central, will have noticed that when the Government and the UK Border Agency have some successes in that regard, it is not universally popular. We are being criticised this week for resuming returns to Iraq, but that has to be part of the process; otherwise, the process will silt up.

Let me make some progress, as I am conscious of the time and there are many questions to answer. A point made by various hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) and the right hon. Member for Leicester East, was about resources. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the state of the public finances left by the Government he supported for 13 years. As a result, there will be difficulties. All I can sensibly say is that the management of resources is as important as the quantum of resources. That is one of the things that the new Government are most eager to get to grips with as fast as possible, and we shall be doing so as part of the general spending review.

Various hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, asked about the Glasgow pilot. She will know that it encourages refused asylum seeker families to return voluntarily by providing intensive support, which is focused on helping families to confront issues that delay a return and building up skills to prepare for a voluntary return. Thirty-two families have been referred to the Glasgow pilot; 11 have been accommodated there. I am afraid that nothing has changed in that regard since the hon. Lady left office. No families have elected to return voluntarily to their home countries, and enforced departure has taken place of three families who were initially accepted into the project. However, she and I need not despair at this point, because one of the things that I learned when I was in Glasgow earlier this week was that the fact of
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that project has spread awareness of assisted voluntary return much more widely among the various communities-she will be aware that there are large numbers of such families there-which in itself has led to a significant surge in applications for voluntary return. The availability of that process and the information on it is quite heartening in terms of the wider review that I am conducting. The more aware we can make families of the existence of voluntary return, the more they seem to be interested in it. It is a difficult set of options before the Government, but that is one of the heartening points that should be made.

I will attempt to answer all the questions the hon. Lady asked. On Dungavel, in the one or two cases that occur now, the families are moved to Yarl's Wood, so that is the only place where they are being held. The problem is lessening slightly as I progress through this speech. I have now learned that only three children are in detention at the moment at Yarl's Wood. She asked, as others did, about local authorities. Clearly, the local authorities with the most expertise, whether we are talking about Croydon, Kent or Hillingdon-the ones that people would expect to be involved-will play a significant role in the review, but I take her point that other local authorities will need to be informed.

The hon. Lady asked about community organisations. One reason for trying to get out as much as possible is to engage not only the national end of the various organisations that are most concerned with either the welfare of children or, specifically, families in the position that we are discussing, but the organisations on the ground around the country, so that they can contribute their considerable expertise to the review.

On assisted voluntary return, the hon. Lady makes the point that we are living in a time of spending stringency. All I can sensibly say at this point is that, as she knows, in the long run nothing is as expensive as detention. Building and maintaining detention centres is more expensive than providing people with packages to return voluntarily, so if all goes well, the net effect on the public purse will also be beneficial.

The hon. Lady asked about the legal advice that I am receiving. All I can say gently is that I do not remember her ever sharing the legal advice that she received from Home Office lawyers when she was standing at the Dispatch Box. That was a very good habit of hers, which I intend to take up.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. It has been extremely constructive. This is not necessarily an easy problem to solve, but we all agree that it must be solved. We cannot go on with the system that we had in the past. The final big question was when we shall finish the review. The report will be on my desk in the early weeks of July, and I shall proceed with all possible speed after that to come to a full conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

3.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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