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Lord Clinton-Davis: The noble Lord has made a strong prima facie case for action to be taken along the lines suggested in the amendments. However, I suspect that there are technical difficulties that may stand in the way of including the provisions in the Bill. No doubt my noble friend will advise the Committee of whether that is the case. However, I for one certainly view very sympathetically the suggestions put forward by the noble Lord. At this stage we would expect no more from the Government--I would not, although I do not know what the noble Lord would feel--than that the matter should at least be viewed in a sympathetic light. If there are technical and drafting problems, those may be dealt with at later stages of the Bill. The noble Lord has made a strong case for careful consideration of the issues.
Lord Dholakia: I support the amendment. It is a sensible provision, and if there are technical reasons why it should not be included, then we shall want to know them. Equally, however, there is no reason why such technical difficulties cannot be overcome with appropriate wording.
I should declare once again my interest as a trustee of the Save the Children Fund and a number of other children's organisations. They have produced accurate material on the amendment. The provision refers to refugee children. First and foremost, they are children. The detention of refugee children raises serious questions about protection. Children can be detained in two circumstances: first, as unaccompanied children; and, secondly, as children in families.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, asked whether detention violates Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Perhaps I may also ask the Minister whether the detention of refugee children violates Articles 22 and 39 of the convention.
It is always difficult to make distinctions on the matter of age. Its determination has raised a considerable amount of concern. We welcome the Government's declaration that unaccompanied children will be detained only in exceptional circumstances, and that the Government do not knowingly detain anyone under the age of 18. However, children's organisations have produced firm evidence on this point. I have been
I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to these matters, including the need to obtain appropriate paediatric reports for the assessment of age. But for as long as this matter still raises doubt it is right and proper that we should try to protect young people under the age of 18 from detention. I support the amendment.
Lord Judd: I too hope that the Minister will be able to give the amendment serious consideration. The arguments have been well rehearsed, and I simply underline two matters. First, many of these children will already have suffered extraordinary trauma. To impose further trauma upon them is almost unthinkable. Secondly, to make arrangements for their detention, particularly in prison, at a time when the Minister is battling so valiantly against all that is wrong with our prisons and centres of detention for young people is highly questionable. If, in our prisons and centres of detention, the system operated perfectly, perhaps the situation would not be so alarming. I am sure that, whatever the technical difficulties, the Minister will give serious consideration to the amendment.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, to which I have added my name. The amendment asserts some important points about the way we treat children. I said in Committee on Monday--the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made similar points today--that we are considering children first and asylum seekers second. An absolute declaration of the Government's intention that no child should ever be held in a detention centre would be welcome. If it were possible to write on to the face of the Bill a safeguard along the lines set out in Amendments Nos. 114 and 115, that would be desirable.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, referred to the case of a Tunisian girl who was given exceptional leave to remain at the end of the process. Other cases have been brought to our attention by Save the Children. The case of the Nigerian girl, to which the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, spoke, was referred to that organisation by Amnesty International. That illustrates what can happen in these circumstances. In a further case, a Nigerian boy was held at HM Prison Rochester because of an age dispute. Despite the existence of evidence about the boy's age, the immigration service refused to release him. He was eventually released following a paediatric examination which confirmed that he was a minor. He
I do not believe that there is a world of difference between all those who have spoken today as to the likely response of the Government. However, although I strongly welcome the assurance given by the Government in a Special Standing Committee on 18th May that children detained in social services care would be subject to Section 25 of the Children Act, I believe that the Committee would be assisted by clarification of that assurance; in particular, the conditions under which children would be detained outside that provision. That would go some way to meet the concerns raised by Members of the Committee.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I speak to Amendment No. 115. Surely, there is total agreement that Amendment No. 114 is entirely right. I recall that in the debates on the 1996 Act we ran into the problem of how age was to be determined, especially in cases where youngsters arrived without any documents to support their age. In the event, the proposal for independent paediatric assessment was not accepted and, therefore, there was no provision in that legislation that children could not be detained. I believe that Amendment No. 114 is dependent entirely on finding a way to establish the age of a person, or making a reasonable assessment of age. I am informed by those who are authorities in this matter--I well remember the earlier debates--that it is extremely difficult to determine the age of a young person and that such an assessment may give rise to a discrepancy of anything up to five years.
Earl Russell: I too support Amendment No. 115, to which I have put my name. The Minister may be glad to know that I shall not attempt to repeat anything I have previously said on the subject. There are two pieces of information, widely separated, in the Ramsbotham report on Campsfield House. One is that no children had been admitted to Campsfield House; the other is that a large number--my memory tells me 49, but I do not swear to it--had been discharged from Campsfield House into the care of Bicester social services. Whatever the brewery advertisements suppose, since none of us has yet discovered a way of getting younger, this suggests that the matter of the age of alleged children is open to some doubt.
Civil wars and civil unrest are not good for records, so the countries from which most asylum seekers come are likely to be in a state where the records are in more than usual confusion. That means that an independent paediatric examination is the only acceptable way of obtaining real evidence and that the test of "reasonable likelihood" in this amendment, however lacking in certainty, is the best we shall ever get. If it is the best we shall ever get, we had better take it.
Viscount Brentford: I warmly support these two amendments. I believe that the Government's White Paper refused to outlaw the detention of children, arguing that the power to detain had to be kept for limited circumstances. Have the Government considered or publicised the limited circumstances so as to provide guidance to those who have this responsibility? The detention of children is a very important issue. I am sure that all Members of the Committee agree that, wherever possible, we must keep the practice to an absolute minimum. Perhaps we should set out exactly the conditions in which it is absolutely necessary for the Government to detain children.
The Earl of Sandwich: About 10 years ago I worked with Save the Children on a committee concerned with children in Africa. It was at exactly that time that the Children Act came into force and I became aware of how many organisations and individuals had worked on that legislation. The Minister will give us an assurance that the Children Act carries on. But why is it that so many of the same organisations, 10 years later, looking at this legislation, have decided that it is not adequate and that these new provisions should be inserted?
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