Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 10th February 2010.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity) 7:00 pm, 10th February 2010

I will provide figures in a little while about the number of children detained for different periods, but there are many areas in which children suffer because of the choices of their parents, such as when a parent is in a domestic prison. I have spoken to head teachers in my constituency who have known children who have come home from school to find that Dad or Mum has been in prison, which affects them massively. There are other matters on which children are affected by the decisions of their parents, and we do need to detain people on certain grounds.

Statistics were mentioned in the debate, and I wish to make it clear that what we provided in the IMB report was management information. Under the rules that now govern the release of Government statistics, we are unable to release figures unless they have been agreed by the Office for National Statistics, and we need to be careful about how we present them. I will therefore be careful with the information that I am about to present in response to my hon. Friend's question about the number of children in detention.

In the last quarter of 2009, 315 children entered detention. In the financial year 2008-09, 1,116 children entered detention and slightly more departed it-clearly some cases would have been in both financial years. Some 539 of those children, slightly fewer than half, were removed, and 629 were released. I should put it on record that those statistics are based on management information and are not subject to the detailed checks that apply to the publication of national statistics. They may include some double counting, as some children may have been detained, released and detained again. The average length of detention was 16 days in 2008-09, and for this year, 2009-10, it is slightly less so far. Of the children detained on 30 September 2009, 25 had been detained for seven days or fewer, five for eight to 14 days, five for 15 to 28 days and ten for 29 or more days but less than two months. None was detained for longer than that.

Delays and backlogs were mentioned. They have been an enormous problem, but I know from my constituency case load as well as from my work in the Home Office that most of the backlog will be cleared by this March and the vast majority by 2011. We inherited a very big backlog, but there has been work to make progress on it and people are already coming to my surgery either facing deportation or having been granted their status. The matter will always be a challenge, and I would never say that it is resolving itself, but the backlog has been massively reduced. I do not have time now to go into the regulation of legal advisers, but the Government share the frustration at legal advisers who do not do their job properly and sometimes misadvise their clients. Let us be frank: they are playing games with people's lives. Since 30 April 2001, it has been a criminal offence for an adviser to provide immigration advice or services unless their organisation is registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner-an independent non-departmental public body set up under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999-has been granted a certificate of exemption by that body, or is otherwise covered by the 1999 Act, which includes solicitors and others who are professionally qualified in the field. It is important that we maintain vigilance on that. I talk to many hon. Members who, like me, have large case loads, and we share their concerns. There is always more to be done.

I have answered a number of the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington asked, but she also mentioned delays and blockages in the system.

I shall touch on alternatives in a moment, but when there is a request to extend a child's detention by one or two days, for example, I must take into account what would happen to them if they went back into the community, where they would go, their welfare, and what would happen if they were to yo-yo-go out into the community and return to detention within a day or two, with all the travel and upset that that involves, and the hopes that it would raise. I take that very seriously as the Minister responsible. I have sometimes decided that it is more acceptable to leave a child where they are, knowing that they are facing imminent removal, even if they go over a bureaucratic deadline. I re-emphasise that I take such decisions seriously. I must take into account all the advice and information I can gather on each case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford asked whether he could meet me. I am happy to extend an invitation both to him and to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire to talk them through where we are now, and keep them apprised of developments, particularly on alternatives.

Hon. Members have touched on a number aspects of child welfare. Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, which was introduced last November, placed a statutory safeguarding duty on the UK Border Agency. That has given us, and me particularly as the Minister responsible, an opportunity to examine and improve even further the safeguarding of children in our care. That measure was introduced at around the same time that I became the Minister responsible, so I am fortunate, because it gives me an extra opportunity to look at what we do.

Child welfare, which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire touched on, is taken extremely seriously at Yarl's Wood. Robust arrangements are in place to identify any concerns. A multi-disciplinary team, including a social worker from Bedford borough children's services, reviews each child on a weekly basis. When a child's welfare is affected by their continued detention, a detention review is triggered, and we look to release that child and his or her parents. A regular children's forum, complemented by a new children-specific complaints process, provides children with the opportunity to give feedback on their overall experience of their detention, their transport and their stay at the centre. Their comments are important and are very much taken on board.

I shall not go through the long programme of steady improvements that have taken place at Yarl's Wood since Serco took over the operating contract in 2007, because, in all fairness, the hon. Gentleman has more than adequately explained them. Again, I thank him for his balanced tone in this debate.

I should like to correct a slight misapprehension from my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz: all children are offered an education at Yarl's Wood. The school is available for children from nursery to A-level age, but, of course, it is not compulsory. Every time I review a child in detention and whether to extend that, I get information on whether they are engaging with school or nursery or whatever is appropriate, and why they do not attend if that is the case. They are important indicators for me and I need to make decisions on the basis of as much information as I can get. When the Home Affairs Committee visited Yarl's Wood, it was lunch time, which is why there were no children in the school, but the school is a good facility, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire acknowledged. The improvements have been acknowledged by others, including Sir Al Aynsley Green, the Children's Commissioner for England, and the independent monitoring board. However, we are not complacent and, as the Minister responsible, I certainly would not want to be complacent on this important issue. We continue to look to identify further enhancements.

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