Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 10th February 2010.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 6:39 pm, 10th February 2010

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to make that point. There is often a dispute concerning women detainees and issues of rape and past sexual violence. If the women detainees are dependent on a health care service that is commissioned by the private contractor, they will not feel confident, rightly or wrongly, in the health advice that they are given. I have had issues raised with me about the treatment available at detention centres for tuberculosis or HIV. Some detainees and advisers feel that they are not getting the best possible treatment because of attempts to cut costs or effort. I do not know whether that is true, but if the health care was independently provided the detainees and the people who help and support them would have more confidence in the system.

On the question of children in detention, as I have said, I have visited both Yarl's Wood and Oakington. When one looks at the little school and talks to the people who help with the children, one cannot help but leave impressed by their care and concern. There is a school there, and toys and facilities, but they are all behind walls and gates. To all intents and purposes, a young child in Yarl's Wood is in prison. How can they understand it when they are being kept there for months?

I know that the Minister is a mother. She will have a brief from her officials and she will talk to us about immigration control, but I ask her to imagine that it was her children behind bars. Are these the conditions that she would want for them? They would not be able to run completely free as far as they like, or to go into town to see Father Christmas, or to go into town to meet their friends. Are those the conditions that anyone would want for their child? Not for three months, not for two months, not for a month-not even for a day.

These children and their parents have committed no crime. They might be a threat to efficient immigration control, but they have committed no crime. Should they be kept in conditions that we would not want our children kept in for 24 hours? I repeat that when the House originally debated setting up the detention centres, it had no idea that children would be kept in them for the lengths of time that they are.

Time and again, not only committed campaigners-I have the utmost respect for the committed campaigners with whom I and other hon. Members have worked-but people such as Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, have voiced their concerns about holding children in such conditions. I have seen reports that officials whom I have met will certainly have seen, which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire might also have seen, about psychiatric examinations of children. The people who examine and talk to those children elicit from them the stress and trauma that being transported to and held in detention centres has caused them. For people who have not read such reports, there is the remarkable production by Juliet Stevenson, which vividly brought home to many people who heard it on the radio or went to see it live what it means to children to be held in those conditions and to be taken away from their communities, school friends and schools to what is for them a prison for reasons that they do not understand.

Ministers must remember that the detention of such children is a phenomenon that has emerged without Parliament ever having explicitly said that that is what it wanted to happen. I agree with my hon. Friend John McDonnell that we should not keep in detention children who have committed no crime and whose parents have committed no crime. Time and again, people have said that that practice puts us in breach of the convention on the rights of the child. I cannot believe that the Government cannot, in the 21st century, find alternatives.

I know what Ministers will say, because I have been doing immigration casework for 20-odd years. They will say that if we do not put people in detention, they will not return of their own free will, or they will cause problems. Detention at Yarl's Wood or Oakington is the end of the line in a system that, although Ministers have improved it greatly, still has too many blockages and still encourages people to feel that they can delay cases. The children whom Ministers feel forced to hold in detention are the victims of a system that still has too many delays. They are the victims of so-called immigration advisers out there who are still giving people poor advice that encourages them to hold on against all hope. Those children are the victims of what happens further up the system, but it all ends with a child who should be carefree and able to look out of the window as far as the eye can see being held behind bars in a prison for the purposes of others.

I have been privileged to meet families who are in detention in Yarl's Wood, including children and mothers, to hear their concerns. I have been privileged to work with campaigners down the years and I have brought these issues to the House's attention in other Adjournment debates. I must say to the Government that although focus groups and opinion polls will say that no one cares if we keep children in conditions that are in breach of their human rights and that there are no votes in this issue, we should be better than that. We should work towards a situation in which no child of an immigrant, even if that immigrant is here illegally and subject to immigration control, is kept by the state in conditions that we would not tolerate for our own children.

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