Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 10th February 2010.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 6:32 pm, 10th February 2010

Alistair Burt paid tribute to a number of organisations and individuals. Let me now pay tribute to him for the way in which he has consistently addressed this issue and widened it so that it has become more than just a constituency matter.

I want to discuss, very briefly, what has happened over the past week. There are two detention centres in my constituency, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. There have been two riots at Harmondsworth in recent years. As some Members will recall, on both occasions there were fires, and on one occasion the centre was burnt down and had to be evacuated.

According to reports that I have read about the demonstration that took place over the weekend, there was some rough handling, and people were denied water and food. Regardless of whether such action is taken because people are in a particular location, I consider it inappropriate. That is why we are calling for an independent inquiry, and I urge the Minister to commission it as rapidly as possible. I agree that it could be based not just on witness statements, but on the closed-circuit television recordings that might be available. I say that because after the first riot at Harmondsworth a number of lessons were not learnt, or not learnt speedily enough, which led to a second riot that posed even more danger to both staff and detainees.

I would welcome the announcement of such an inquiry-conducted by Anne Owers or by someone else-and of a time scale for its report. I also echo the request for information on what has happened to the four detainees who were moved during the hunger strike. I should like to know what disciplinary action, if any, has been taken against them, and whether it has had any impact on their case.

Harmondsworth used to house children. I have visited it regularly over the years, from when it was a row of huts. It was then turned into a semi-prison housing 400, and now there is Colnbrook as well, on a similar scale. We have heard in our debate about the effects that detention has on children, and there have been studies that have shown the long-term emotional impact of even a brief spell of detention, but, as has been said, the figures demonstrate that children are being held for much longer than anyone promised. Even a matter of months is an enormously long period in a child's life, and will have a significantly deleterious effect on their well-being.

I remember visiting Harmondsworth when there were children there. I remember in particular an occasion when the children did a project on what freedom meant to them, and I will never forget one of the statements from the children, which was that freedom is the sand outside the gates that they could look through. That has always stayed with me. No matter how caring the staff, the fact that these children are locked up-in effect, imprisoned-not only shames us as a society, but has drastic effects on their futures.

That is why, in principle, I do not believe we should be locking up children at all. I do not believe that is justified, and I believe that in a civilised society we should be able to find alternative means. Even I am critical of the pilots that have been developed, because they still have an element of intimidatory behaviour towards young people. At some time in the future, I would welcome a wider debate about the principle of the detention of children who have done nothing wrong. In fact, even the parents themselves are not criminals; they have not committed any crime, as such. In no other area of law do we detain children simply because they are with their parents. There must be alternative solutions that we can bring forward.

I also believe that we detain people in far greater numbers than is reasonable. Many of us have dealt with individual cases. They might involve people going to Yarl's Wood and then down to Harmondsworth, and then on to the airport and then back again, as people are dragged through a tortuous legal system. Most such cases involve people who, in the first instance, simply want to live in a country where their human rights are not abused and where they are not under threat of physical violence. In addition, most of them probably simply want to work-they simply want to earn an income that gives them a standard of living that lifts them out of poverty. That should be welcomed, rather than penalised by dragging them through the processes of the courts and then on to deportation.

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