We looked at a number of issues when we formulated the new programme. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned those organisations and others involved in this area, because I am keen to arrange a round table meeting with some of those most passionately interested in the issue. Some outside organisations say, "Never detain a child", but we need to maintain an immigration system-that is the Government's responsibility and it is mine on behalf of the Government. I am keen to work with people who favour alternatives to see how we can shape those alternatives and ensure that they work and deliver outcomes that are better for the families and children concerned, while still achieving the ends of an immigration system.
We will accommodate four or five families at any one time for a process that lasts about 12 weeks, and the pilot will be evaluated by Barnardo's and the consultancy firm Organisational Development and Support. So far, eight families have been through the project. One family absconded and a second has been removed forcibly. Thus far, there have been no voluntary returns, although two are currently pursuing the voluntary route. It is early days-we are barely more than six months in-but after my visit, I will happily let hon. Members know what is happening.
That is just one initiative, and more can be done, including in communities, because people do not necessarily have to go to special facilities. I look for support from the voluntary sector, especially those with an interest in this area, to prevent families from entering detention in the first place. I have only relatively recently been given responsibility for this area, but I am sometimes a little dismayed by the outside criticisms, which do not always suggest alternatives. It is the Government's responsibility to find alternatives, but I am keen to bring on board those who have concerns, and to discuss with them the practical alternatives and the role that they could play in helping those who are liable for detention to avoid it and to leave the country voluntarily.
The Government are committed to maintaining a firm but fair asylum and immigration system, and the departure of those who do not have a basis to stay here is the most important element of that. It is only fair. I am also responsible, with another hat, for those whom we take from UN refugee camps around the world, many of whom are vulnerable and have been in camps for 20 years. If we allow only people on our shores to stay-because they have made it here-we can lose sight of our wider humanitarian responsibilities as a responsible nation. It is important that we recognise their needs as well.
I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford will join me in calling for those who are critical to work with me. That is a genuine offer. I want to see how we can work together to ensure that these alternatives work and result in a reduction in the number of children with their parents in detention.
I thank the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire for raising this debate. We have been fortunate to have a good length of time. The welfare of those in our care is at the heart of what the UK Border Agency and Serco do at Yarl's Wood. It is a challenging area of work, the staff do a good job in difficult circumstances, and I know that he recognises the progress that has been made. We are not complacent, however. A continuous programme is needed to look at how we can improve areas of service at Yarl's Wood and to look at alternatives to immigration detention.
Question put and agreed to.
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