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If only we could have a scheme like the one put forward by my dear friend, my noble friend Lord Rooker, where you put a letterbox at the end of your garden. Unlike in America, though, in this country it would not last five minutes. If you put a letterbox at the end of someone’s drive, someone would be stealing

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the mail before you can say “Jack Robinson”. And what would we do? We would probably give them two hours’ community service looking after someone else’s problems. That is what is going on. We cannot talk about using those methods until we have a society that can defend people’s mail, such as America, where it is a federal offence to interfere with it.

The noble Lord, Lord Birt, talked about the restrictive practices of a bygone age. He did not say what those restrictive practices were. That is something else that could get bandied around. We are not talking about Jack Dash and the dockers; we are talking about decent people who get up at half-past four in the morning and go to work. It is not a restrictive practice to sign the book at about quarter to six and then go out into the snow and the rain. The men and women who do that job should not be accused of restrictive practices; they should be commended for the job that they do.

I turn to this business about profitability. If Royal Mail has issued false information about the four legs of its organisation, someone had better tell it because it is saying that all four of those businesses are in profit. Who do you believe? I am tempted to believe that the people running the Post Office have a better idea of its accounts.

I am accused of saying that the Bill is full of embroidery. It is. It is embroidered to supply a little comfort around the central thought that someone has had that we must sell off 30 per cent of Royal Mail. The public do not want it, the staff do not want it, 140-odd Labour MPs down the other end do not want it, but we are going to make them have it. Well, here is one person who will fight to the last to see that we keep faith with our manifesto commitment, because that is what Labour people are supposed to do. We are not here to kick over the traces; we are here to support Labour Party policy as far as we can. I understand that some people have a problem with that.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has been able to say that the USO is covered in the 2000 Act, because it is. There is a section—I do not know the number—protecting the universal service.

I am tempted to get excited. I will try very hard to deal with one or two points that were raised. My noble friend Lord Giddens compared Royal Mail with the National Health Service. With respect, how can you compare sticking private money into Royal Mail with the link between the pharmaceutical companies and the NHS? There are no shareholders on the boards of pharmaceutical companies. He argued that the Bill will produce a service that the public will approve of. I want the best service possible within the financial constraints that we have. I am ashamed when people deliver mail at half-past three in the afternoon. I do not believe that that is what a modern postal service should be providing for its people. All right, they cannot all get the post delivered by half-past nine in the morning in London—that is a romantic gloss from the past. We cannot do that, but we can improve the service so it is a damn sight better than it is at the moment. We can do that only when we have a method of operation that allows us to get the mail in, get it sorted—there is no question that that will be done by

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sequential machines; they will come—and then get it out. If I am right, some people will be like the postmen in Washington—letter carriers who walk around all day with their bags, getting topped up from time to time with their feeder system.

I thank my noble friends Lady Turner, Lord Hoyle, and others who might have supported me if I had pushed this amendment to a vote. But I have been in politics too long to think that I can possibly win a vote in this House tonight. However, I intend to go down to the other end whenever I can, attend every public meeting I can and give every public pronouncement I can. People who know me know that I have never dealt with the media, but I will from now on. The British public need to know the truth. We have to defend our postal service, but in the mean time I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [HL]

Copy of the Bill
Explanatory notes

Committee (Fourth Day)

8.28 pm

Amendment 117

Moved by Lord Avebury

117: After Clause 51, insert the following new Clause—

“Duty to collect and publish statistics on detention and children

Duty to collect and publish statistics on detention and children

(1) In pursuance of his duties under section 51, the Secretary of State shall collect and publish statistics regarding detention of children in relation to immigration, nationality and asylum on a regular basis.

(2) In this section “statistics regarding detention and children” includes information relating to—

(a) the total number of children detained under immigration act powers, during the relevant period, including details of—

(i) their ages,

(ii) their nationalities,

(iii) where they are detained, and

(iv) the length of their detention,

(b) the number of people who have dependent children under the age of 18 and who are detained under immigration act powers, without those children, and

(c) the number of people whose ages are disputed and who are detained under immigration act powers.”

Lord Avebury: In moving this amendment in the unavoidable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I should like first to repeat a concern that he expressed previously about the number of children who go missing when they are in the care of UKBA and local authorities. In replying to that amendment, the Minister said merely that the police are informed. Now that we have the code of conduct issued in January under the UK Borders Act 2007 and the obligations in Clause 51 coming down the track, the very least that we can expect is that statistics be

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published on the missing children at regular intervals. In addition, we would really like to have the expertise of the DCSF safeguarding team deployed on this problem and on the other new responsibilities of the UKBA.

As we have always said, the detention of a child is rarely justifiable, and then only for the shortest possible time. There may be exceptional cases where it is necessary—for example, to establish their identity or to prevent trafficking—but we believe not only that every case should be sanctioned by the Secretary of State but also that regular reports should be made so that Parliament can monitor the way in which the power is being exercised.

The chief inspector said:

“Any period of detention can be detrimental to children and their families, but the impact of lengthy detention is particularly extreme”.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child states that, to comply with the convention, the UK Government should,

The duty in Clause 51 to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children obliges the Government to seek further means of reducing the incidence and duration of children’s detention. The guidance issued by the UKBA recognises that,

It is difficult to reconcile that objective with the information provided by the chief inspector in her latest report. We cannot rely solely on the sparse information in the Government’s quarterly asylum statistics. The immediate necessity is for Parliament and the public to know what the numbers are, where they are being held and why.

When debating the UK Borders Bill in 2007, we suggested that Ministers be obliged to place anonymised copies of their decisions to approve continued detention beyond the 28-day period in the Libraries of both Houses, with a note on the reasons for their decisions in each case, so that Parliament would be able to evaluate the process and be assured not only that the declared purpose of children’s detention was being strictly observed but that, wherever possible, alternative arrangements were being considered and made. The chief inspector found that, of 450 children held at Yarl’s Wood between May and October 2007, no fewer than 83 were held for more than 28 days, but the Minister is under no obligation to give reasons for the decisions or to explain why the number had shot up from 27 in a comparable period in 2005, in spite of a reduction in the total number of children passing through the centre.

The Refugee Children’s Consortium expresses particular concern about the failure of the UKBA to maintain statistics on the number of age-disputed claimed minors held in detention, or the number of those disputed cases that are found to be children in the end. There are many such cases in spite of UK policy not to detain unaccompanied children other than in the most exceptional circumstances. Of the

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165 age-disputed cases dealt with at Oakington by the Refugee Council in 2005, 89, or 54 per cent, turned out to be children. In 2008, it worked with 55 age-disputed young people in detention, of whom 12 have been found to be children, with 10 cases still unresolved.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child specifically recommended that disaggregated statistics should be published to show the number of age-disputed cases and their outcomes. However, in the latest statistics, published last month, no assistance is given on age disputes in detention. The figures are rounded, so it is impossible to know the precise number of children in detention at any one time. They are still, as ever, snapshots, so that the number of children passing through detention in any particular period cannot be assessed. That also means that children who have spent long periods in detention but who happened not to be there at the time of the snapshot can be missed. The one table that is not a snapshot relates to children removed from the UK from detention, but ignores those released from detention rather than removed. Moreover, it gives only numbers in, and not length of, detention. There is nothing on the aggregate cumulative time that is spent in detention by all children, which may involve in each case more than one period.

The UKBA treats claimed children as adults if its officials form the opinion, on appearance alone, that they are significantly over the age of 18, in which case they may be held in detention until a full age assessment has been conducted, which may take several weeks. The problem was well illustrated by the case reported in today’s Guardian of the Afghan boy Majid, whose age was assessed as over 18 by a social worker but as 15 by a highly experienced paediatrician. To be Merton compliant, the local authority is required to consider qualitative factors, such as family circumstances and history, educational background and the applicant’s statements about his activities in the previous few years, but the paediatrician uses a different approach, employing medical and psychological criteria. The difficulty with both those techniques is that there are no population statistics for rural Afghan populations, for example, so as to guide the experts on the spread of ages at which particular events are expected to occur. In the case of Majid, the paediatrician has been trying to put the 500 cases that she has dealt with so far into some kind of scientific framework. However, up to this point there is no universally accepted algorithm for determining age, leaving plenty of scope for disputes between the professions.

The problem of age determination, which has a strong bearing on the number of children in detention, because you cannot detain minors, has been around ever since I can remember. In the paper Planning Better Outcomes, there was a proposal to resuscitate the use of dental X-rays for age determination, a practice that was abolished on 2 February 1982 by the then Home Secretary Mr Willie Whitelaw, afterwards Viscount Whitelaw in your Lordships’ House. That followed the publication by my office, in June 1981, of a report on the use of X-rays for age determination in immigration control by my then research assistant Ted White, who was at Yale University at the time and is now head of a law firm in Denver, Colorado. The

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conclusion that we reached was that the use of radiological examinations for non-clinical purposes was unethical and inaccurate and should be stopped. That was endorsed by an ad hoc medico-legal committee consisting of representatives of the BMA, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the UK Immigration Advisory Service, the TUC, law centres, regional health authorities and individual lawyers and doctors.

Similarly, the proposal to revive the practice a quarter of a century after the decision of Mr Whitelaw to end it attracted vehement opposition from the Children’s Commissioner, the BMA, the BDA, the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health, the Children’s Society and so on. Their opinion was reinforced with a legal opinion from Mr Nicholas Blake QC that X-raying children for non-therapeutic purposes was unlawful, partly because the child subjected to the procedure would not be capable of giving informed consent.

When in January 2008 the Government published the outcome of consultations on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, they had to admit, in a masterly understatement, that there was,

However, the response continued:

“There is a need to consider this further. We will, therefore, set up a working group with key stakeholders, including medical practitioners, to carry out a thorough review of all age assessment procedures with a view to establishing best practice”.

As far as I can see, there has been no further word from the Government about this working group, but the four UK Children’s Commissioners presented a unanimous report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child last June saying, among other things:

“We strongly object to Government proposals to introduce dental x-ray procedures to establish the age of asylum applicants on the grounds that they are unethical, unlawful and cannot predict chronological age any better than non-invasive methods”.

The inaccuracy of the procedure is not the main reason for objecting to it but, as an aside, all the studies that produce U-curves purporting to relate chronological age to tooth eruption have been on European populations; no attempts have been made to carry out surveys of the child population in asylum-producing countries such as Iran, Afghanistan or Somalia.

What has happened to the working party, which last met in July 2008? The code of practice contains not a single word about age determination. Will the Minister say for the record that X-rays have been definitively abandoned for this purpose? The Government should also amend the guidance so that officials are advised not to make initial decisions based on physical appearance but to give applicants the benefit of the doubt on their claim to be under 18 until a thorough professional assessment has been conducted.

The lack of statistics relating to children has occasioned the debate. I hope that the Minister will now remedy the position by giving some undertakings. I beg to move.

Lord Judd: This is an important amendment. I hope that my noble friend will not simply bat it back to the Liberal Benches. I am sure he will not. I am sure that he will understand what lies behind it, and will do

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his level best to meet that concern. We all like to regard our society as a civilised society. One of the tests of a civilised society is how it treats children. It is difficult to exaggerate the trauma that some of these children find themselves caught up in through no fault of their own. It is therefore terribly important that the Government do not only have good intentions. I have no doubt whatever about their good intentions; indeed, I commend them for their recent work to improve the situation of children in this predicament. However, it is not good enough to have just good intentions and generalised policies. Each of these children is an individual child in a desperate situation. God knows what the cost may be in terms of the behaviour of that child, and potentially the cost to society, if the child’s experience is as bitter as it may be.

From that standpoint, it is essential that we have a way of monitoring very precisely what is going on in this area of policy: where children are, the numbers involved, where they come from and all the rest. It is crucial that this detailed information is available not only to the Government and those working on behalf of the Government, but to all of us in Parliament and, indeed, the wider public, so that we can understand the situation for which we are responsible and debate it and discuss it in an informed way.

The amendment does not deal with the issue of where children are detained. I feel very strongly about the issue. I do not believe that any child should be detained in a general detention centre. As soon as a child is involved, I believe that there should be proper provision, but that is another matter. As far as this issue is concerned, I earnestly entreat my noble friend, for whom I have very great regard, to take the drive behind the amendment seriously and to try to meet it as well as he can in his response.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I, too, support the amendments. I also endorse the extra point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to the point of my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham that, now there is a code of conduct, a statement should be made on a regular basis on the numbers of missing children, as there is real concern about what exactly has happened to them. I think that the country is fairly ashamed of this issue, not to put it too strongly.

My other point is to join the Refugee Children’s Consortium in expressing the same disappointment that it has expressed in its briefing to us that the Bill is silent—indeed, it does not really mention it—on the issue of detention of children. We all know that a detention centre is a pretty awful environment for a child to grow up in and learn. Indeed, we have had illustrations of the serious effects on emotional well-being and mental health that this has had. There was a story, which I shall not go into, only a couple of days ago from the Welsh Refugee Council, describing the treatment as dehumanising and abusive. There are serious concerns.

8.45 pm

Any length of time in detention is detrimental to a child. The amendments, which will require numbers to be kept in detail and reported on, are absolutely essential. We have had recent briefings, not least from lawyers defending human rights and Refugee and

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Migrant Justice, pointing out how frequently children are interviewed by the UKBA without a legal representative, despite the fact that the issue can be a matter of life and death. All these areas need looking into again. We are also told that children are subject to a hostile legal process marked by a culture of disbelief about what they are actually saying.

All the statistics and briefings that we have been given by those organisations are prepared with the intention of helping the Government to fulfil their obligation more effectively. They have not written all these things down with the intention of just being critical, although there is obviously an element of criticism—rather more than that—in all that they say. They are setting out how it will be possible for the Government to do their duty in this respect in future. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, the Government have begun to try to do that.

I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the purpose of these amendments, which go quite a long way to satisfying all our concerns, and that the result will be, for everyone to see, regular reports on the length of detention. Rather than the inaccurate reports, which we are told quite a number have been, we hope to see effective ones that Ministers will also see and, in one of the amendments, will have to see to give approval for any further detention. I am very willing to support the amendments.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I support my noble friend’s amendment, and I shall speak in particular to proposed new subsection 2(b).

It is evident that we should have full information on detained children; my noble friend and other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Judd, have made a strong case for why that should be so. Subsection 2(b) also talks of the need to record the number of people with dependent children under 18 who are detained under immigration Act powers. That is important, too. When talking of the welfare of children, we should know how many people have been affected and how many children have been deprived of their parents because they have been detained. There are many arguments about whether it is better to detain the family together or just the one person or whether we should detain people in this way at all.

On the subject of statistics, I voice my gratitude to the London Detainee Support Group. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, read us extracts from its recent report, Detained Lives, in a previous Committee sitting. This report is crucial to our discussions about statistics. It is so easy to focus on the statistics, but this publication shows the faces of the people behind the statistics. It shows the reality of what it is like to be detained away from your children.

Last year, my noble friend and I and some other Members of your Lordships' House visited Harmondsworth and witnessed the terrible plight of some of the youngest men in there, although I appreciate that they were not children. They are called detention centres but to all intents and purposes—given the locked doors—they are prisons by any other name.

The Minister made arrangements for me to visit Yarl’s Wood to see the situation there for myself but it seems that there was an outbreak of chicken pox and

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quarantine has been imposed. I was therefore not able to visit. I am surprised that quarantine has been imposed for chicken pox, which, after all, is prevalent in just about every community and school. Every time you get on a bus, you probably risk catching it from somebody. Nevertheless, the implications of that go beyond my frustration at not being able to visit and see with my own eyes what we are talking about before this Committee stage. I presume that if I could not visit the establishment, the people in Yarl’s Wood could not receive visitors for the duration of the quarantine. That was not the first occasion when quarantine had been imposed. How often have quarantine restrictions been imposed on Yarl’s Wood, and what are the implications for the families concerned? I shall be grateful for any detail that the Minister can provide tonight. I shall be particularly grateful to him if he will follow that up with written details on what infections have occurred and how long the quarantine lasted on each occasion.

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