Today, we bring the debate about children of asylum seekers to the attention of Parliament. This is an appeal to all members to express their concern about how children in Scotland are being treated by the United Kingdom Government. We welcome this morning's news that the First Minister will at last stand up to the Home Office. What he said had a remarkably serendipitous congruence with the subject of today's debate.
Members from almost all parties—Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Scottish Green Party—as well as the independents have recently signed motions in the names of Patrick Harvie and Bill Butler on the scandalous treatment of children during their removal and deportation from Scotland. I am happy to acknowledge that the SNP and Executive amendments are very much in the spirit of our motion.
Today's debate raises the issue of how we treat children, which should be a matter of concern to us all. What treatment of children we tolerate is an ethical issue that transcends party-political boundaries. The welfare of children in this country is too precious an issue to be left simply to party politics. However, political will is required, so the Scottish Parliament must take a stand and voice its concern.
Dawn raids by large numbers of immigration officers and police in body armour seem to be becoming standard practice during removal of vulnerable families with children. Immigration officers in bullet-proof vests waken children in their beds. Parents are handcuffed in front of their children and families are removed by van, on long journeys to detention centres that are prisons in everything but name. That is a traumatic experience.
In the recent case of the Vucaj family from Drumchapel, it was reported that 16 immigration officers kicked in the family's front door at 6 o'clock in the morning and that the children's father was handcuffed in front of them. It was also reported that a family member under the age of 18—a child under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—was handcuffed. Eye-witnesses said that the children were still in their pyjamas as they left. How can we
Outwith politics, people in civic society have brought the matter to the attention of politicians in the Scottish Parliament and elsewhere. Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's commissioner for children and young people, has described such practices as terrorising vulnerable families and has called their treatment "inhumane". Scottish children are voicing concern about and taking action against deportations. Hundreds of pupils from Drumchapel High School—some of whom are present today, with support from their teachers—have organised petitions opposing the deportation of their classmates and school friends. What must it be like to go to school one day to find that one's friend has just disappeared? Teachers have described the impact of that as being almost as serious as the impact of a bereavement in the school community. From public bodies to children's organisations and school friends, there is recognition that scandalous immigration practices are causing trauma and distress, and that they blatantly disregard children's rights.
When Scottish society expresses such profound concern, it is right to expect the Scottish Parliament to do likewise. It is right that we should debate this issue in Parliament today. Parties across the political spectrum take different positions on the UK asylum and immigration policy. The Greens regard the present system as a disgrace.
It is entirely wonderful that the children in Drumchapel took the actions that they did. I am certain that, as Tommy Sheridan says, those actions have had the desired effect—at least, the beginnings of the desired effect.
Clearly, as a result of UK policy, more and more families are being subjected to inhumane treatment. In that policy, there is little focus on the rights and needs of children and it is nowhere near being consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We recognise that in the devolved context the Scottish Executive has no direct responsibility for operation of the asylum and immigration system. However, it has responsibility for the welfare of children, for schools and for working with the UK Government to report on compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In its amendment, the Executive clearly acknowledges those three responsibilities.
The matter that we bring to Parliament today is undoubtedly related to the welfare of children in Scotland, so exactly when does the Scottish Executive acknowledge responsibility? When does its responsibility towards vulnerable children end? Is it when the asylum decision is made? Is it when there is a knock on the door at dawn? Is it when the door is kicked in? Is it when the handcuffs are on? Is it when children are being dragged from their home in their pyjamas? At what stage does the Executive hand over the welfare of those children to the UK Government? Does it believe that it is handing it over to people who respect the children's rights and their own responsibilities under the UNCRC? At some stage in the process, the Executive clearly hands over responsibility to the UK Government. When is that?
"is the need to protect the most vulnerable in our society."—[Official Report, 7 September 2005; c 18882.]
"ensure that no child is left behind or held back"—[Official Report, 6 September 2005; c 18773.]
All children in Scotland deserve that commitment from the First Minister. We should not and surely cannot pick and choose which vulnerable children to protect. I urge the Executive to pull out all the stops to ensure that we provide full and proper protection for all vulnerable children living in Scotland, especially the vulnerable children of asylum seekers.
That the Parliament acknowledges the trauma experienced by the children of asylum seekers when families are removed for deportation and the impact this has on school communities; believes that practices such as those reportedly used against the Vucaj family in Glasgow, including dawn raids, handcuffing of children and the removal of children by large groups of officers in uniform and body armour, are unnecessary and cause fear and distress to the children concerned; affirms its support for the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which states that governments should protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence; recognises that, while the Scottish Executive has no direct responsibility for the operation of the asylum and immigration system, it is responsible for the welfare of children, for schools and for working with the UK Government to report on compliance with the UNCRC; commends the First Minister for his aspiration "to ensure that no child is left behind or held back", and calls on him to give the greatest possible urgency to realising that aspiration for the most vulnerable children in Scotland who include those facing detention and removal.
I am very pleased that in this important debate there is an Executive amendment that can be supported with considerable enthusiasm by both Liberal Democrat and Labour back-bench colleagues. It is a mark of the growing maturity of the Parliament that we are able to debate issues of this nature, which are very much on the reserved-devolved divide, and to do so in a confident and responsible manner. Colleagues will be aware, given my previous convenership of the Scottish Parliament cross-party group on human rights, that the issue is very close to my heart.
As Robin Harper suggested, no cause is more central to the vision of the Scottish Executive and Parliament than the creation of opportunity for our children and young people to fulfil their potential in life. Day by day on our television screens, we see graphic pictures of horror and suffering from around the world, many involving children. Many members took part in the make poverty history march through Edinburgh on 2 July. Some of us, including me, have demonstrated at Dungavel. Our motivation stemmed in large part from natural and proper concerns for children—children who, with a different throw of life's dice, could have been our own children. Those children have been caught up in issues over which they have no control and which are often caused by catastrophic world conflicts that lead to huge movements of people around the globe.
I, too, welcome the initiative that the Executive has taken in lodging its amendment. However, I plead for additional lobbying of the Home Secretary regarding the possibility that children of Iraqis are to be sent back with their families to Iraq at a time when the websites of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights say that Iraq is an unsafe country. Can we keep them here until the country has become safe?
I will come to that point in due course.
It is entirely right that we debate the highly emotive issues of immigration and asylum, and that we do so against the background of the framework of human rights that is provided by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and of international treaties on refugees. However, let us be clear about the context legally, constitutionally and democratically.
Parliament and the Scottish Executive have clear responsibilities under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998. We have responsibility for provision of services to dispersed asylum seekers
I am sorry, but I cannot take any more interventions because of the limited time that is available to me.
We have commissioned research, which is due for completion in 2006, to examine the experiences of the children of asylum seekers in our schools and to identify examples of good practice to be shared among education authorities. Recently, we produced an education guide for asylum seekers and refugees, which is available in all community languages and informs them of what to expect on arrival, how to prepare and where support and assistance can be obtained. Such initiatives are within the Scottish Executive's responsibilities and are a good example of what we can do to ensure that asylum seekers' children have the best possible experience in schools in Scotland. Robin Harper was right to talk about the views of classmates at Drumchapel High School in that context.
However, the responsibility for immigration and asylum policy, and for any changes which should be made, lies clearly with Westminster. This is not a legal or constitutional quibble: it is a basic issue of accountability and democracy. United Kingdom ministers are responsible for and accountable for the policies and official actions in the area. Scottish Ministers are not, and it makes a travesty of the home-rule settlement that was approved so overwhelmingly by the Scottish people in the referendum of 1997 to try to suggest otherwise. That does not mean that the Executive is gagged on matters of asylum and immigration, particularly where children are affected. There is on-going dialogue with the Home Office at official and ministerial levels, which we must keep open and uninhibited and which works to the benefit of those who are affected. There is a responsibility on everyone involved—particularly the Home Office, which determines and runs the system—to lessen the effects of decisions on children.
Equally, I believe that throughout this Parliament there is a belief that, in the vast majority of cases, failed asylum seeker families do not pose either a security threat or a serious risk of flight. Many of us also have serious concerns about reports of the way in which some removals are carried out. I cannot comment on individual cases, but I am determined that in every case that involves children we will ensure that the Home Office works closely with services for children and young people prior to removal of the family. We will convey the concerns that are expressed in today's debate to the responsible ministers in London.
The Executive amendment is intended to be one around which Parliament can unite: it is practical, helpful and focuses not on tendentious or headline-seeking rhetoric, but on areas in which the Scottish Parliament and the Executive have a legitimate interest and can expect to make a difference. I very much hope, in the spirit that Robin Harper moved the motion, that the Parliament will support the Executive amendment.
I move amendment S2M-3323.2, to leave out from "believes" to end and insert:
"affirms its support for the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which states that governments should protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence; recognises that, while the Scottish Executive has no direct responsibility for the operation of the immigration and asylum system, it is responsible for the welfare of children, for schools, and for working with the UK Government to report on compliance with the UNCRC; commends the substantial work done in Scotland to ensure the effective education and inclusion of the children of asylum seekers; believes that, in the vast majority of cases, failed asylum seeker families do not pose either a security threat or a serious risk of flight; calls on Scottish ministers to give the greatest possible urgency to realising their aspirations for the most vulnerable children in Scotland, including those facing detention and removal, and urges them to continue discussions with the Home Office with a view to agreement that the Home Office will work closely with services for children and young people before the removal of any family and to convey to the Home Office the widespread concerns about practices such as so-called 'dawn raids', handcuffing of children, and the removal of children by large groups of officers in uniform and body armour."
I will speak to the SNP amendment, but also in support of the motion.
I note the terms of the Executive's amendment and have heard what the Executive has had to say on the matter—it is ridiculous. The Parliament has been debating the issue for years and it would be
The motion raises two issues that require to be addressed. The first is the morality of the deportation of asylum seekers in the first place when their application fails under a very harsh UK regime that makes dubious decisions about whether people will be penalised or victimised for their political views when they return. The second issue is that the regime distinguishes between asylum seekers and economic refugees. That is done in a country that has had more people go abroad as economic migrants than any other in the world: more than 5 million people of Scots descent are elsewhere. This is a different nation with different priorities and a different history.
How does that regime square with Jack McConnell's speech to the Parliament on the fresh talent initiative? He said:
"By 2009, Scotland's population will fall below the symbolic 5 million level. By 2027, there could be ... a quarter of a million fewer people of working age in Scotland. ... Population decline is serious."—[Official Report, 25 February 2004; c 5940.]
These people have children who are at school here, would go on to university here and would work here. They are the very people whom we need. I cannot see how the current regime squares with the First Minister's so-called obligation to the fresh talent initiative.
Robin Harper referred to the treatment of asylum seekers. Issues have arisen previously. The commissioner for children and young people stamps her feet and shouts. She is a wonderful woman, but she is toothless on the issue. She has no powers to do anything, although she has asked for such powers. I ask the Parliament to re-examine the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2003 to investigate what powers we could give to that wonderful person who is trying to champion the rights of children.
The same situation occurs with respect to the role of the reporter to the children's panel. My amendment refers both to the commissioner for children and young people and to the reporter to
"likely ... to suffer unnecessarily; or ... be impaired seriously in ... health or development, due to a lack of parental care" or were
"likely to become, a member of the same household as a person in respect of whom an offence" has been committed. The offence that is referred to is sexual offences against the children. Those children were sent back with the same people while the case was under investigation. What did the ministers here know about that? Nothing, because London paid no attention to the jurisdiction of the reporter to the children's panel and it pays no attention to what the commissioner for children and young people has to say. It will also pay no attention to the Executive's wishy-washy amendment.
I move amendment S2M-3323.1, to insert at end:
"and, separately, calls on the UK Government to give due regard to the different child protection measures in Scotland, in particular the remit of the Commissioner for Children and Young People and the jurisdiction of the Reporter to the Children's Panel."
I have chosen not to speak about details of the experiences of the families mentioned in the Green party's motion; instead, I will keep to the general issues.
We will support the Executive's amendment as we feel that it addresses the real problems that are faced by asylum seekers and their families in Scotland. We will look for action in the fullness of time, not only promises.
We support the condemnation of
"so-called 'dawn raids', handcuffing of children, and the removal of children by large groups of officers in uniform and body armour."
Although that approach may be appropriate for other police operations, it certainly cannot be justified when, as Robert Brown has said, there is no security threat or serious risk of absconding. Although immigration is reserved to the Westminster Government, we in this Parliament should fully embrace and accept our responsibilities towards children and families in Scotland in respect of child protection, welfare and education.
It is surely a matter of concern that the recent report by HM chief inspector of prisons expressed disappointment that the previous recommendation that there should be independent assessments of the welfare of children at Dungavel had not been implemented. The report was based on an unannounced inspection of Dungavel in December last year. Although the report commends some progress at the centre, it highlights the need for urgent remedial action on health care. It may be more difficult to provide appropriate educational provision for all children, particularly those who stay for a short period, but the provision of health care and vaccine protection is essential.
It might be of interest to Mary Scanlon and to the Parliament to know that the Home Office policy since December 2004, subsequent to that inspection, has been that families should not normally be detained at Dungavel for more than 72 hours. Welfare assessment protocols are in place with South Lanarkshire Council for any child who may be detained for longer than 21 days. On 15 September 2005, there were no children detained at Dungavel, as was the case when I visited Dungavel in the spring.
I thank the minister for that interesting information.
For educational provision, the extent and appropriateness of addressing a child's unique needs must depend on the length of detention. The inspection report states:
"The learning provision for children was deficient and required urgent attention."
Perhaps events have overtaken the report, but it is worth quoting because action was not taken as recommended.
The report also recommended that there should be
"an effective system for assessing and recording children's educational achievements, and for exchanging information with schools."
I hope that action will be taken.
I highlight the need for child protection training and enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks for staff who are in contact with children at Dungavel. I seek an assurance from the minister that appropriate action has been taken.
The fact that families stay so long in centres such as Dungavel is indicative of the chaos that the current Government has created within our immigration system. Instead of offering a safe haven to those who are most in need, the current system appears to have increased illegality. Desperate individuals have been forced into the hands of people smugglers and, when they reach Britain, they are open to exploitation in the underground economy. However, as the real and responsible Opposition party in the chamber, we welcome the Executive's response and the action that it has today stated it will take. We will support the Executive's amendment.
In the debate on asylum seekers in the Parliament in September 2003, my friend Robert Brown said:
"This is an important parliamentary occasion in which what we say in the chamber can enhance or diminish the Scottish Parliament."—[Official Report, 11 September 2003, c 1591.]
I hope that many members will agree that Robert Brown's motion that day, which allowed parties to coalesce around it, should be commended, as should his approach to the subject. The way in which the Parliament responds to sensitive, complex and emotive ethical and moral issues always presents a test for us.
In an island country with no internal controls on movement across the border between Scotland and England, it is sensible that immigration and asylum matters are reserved to the UK Government. It is not the job of the Scottish Parliament to review the asylum and immigration policy of the UK Government, but we have a constitutional right to debate and speak up for Scotland. The context in which I will express my views and those of my Liberal Democrat colleagues is one in which far too many people are detained unnecessarily and for far too long in removal centres. There are many alternatives to detention, including the use of tagging or voice recognition and the requirement to report daily to a police station.
Although I support the Executive's amendment, which strikes the correct balance between establishing principles and recognising the work of the devolved Government, and although progress has been made this year on detention centres, I hold to the view that, where children are detained without limit of time at Dungavel or at Harmondsworth, Oakington and Tinsley immigration removal centres in England, they are held in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by the UK Government but from which it
The convention decreed that
"childhood is entitled to special care and assistance" and that the child
"should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding".
Article 3 of the convention states:
"the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."
In the past, as Robert Brown said, the Executive parties lodged separate motions and amendments on subjects like this. I am pleased that the Executive's position today is more robust. It is explicit in setting out our international obligations and representing the basic tenets of the Liberal Democrat approach.
I hope that the member will forgive me, but I have only four minutes. Our time is limited this morning.
Liberal Democrats across the United Kingdom have argued consistently that children should not be held in removal centres that are designed only for adults, as those centres are inappropriate for children. We have reports from HM chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales, HM inspectorate of probation and HM chief inspector of prisons for Scotland. Only last month, we had a savage report on the holding centres at Dover, Gatwick and London city, which stated that those centres were inadequate. We have supported the use of other measures when families are removed from the United Kingdom. However, it is insufficient as much as it is ineffectual in ensuring that the rights of children are protected that the Home Office's current practices are continuing.
Within the broad framework of the commitments that were made in the partnership agreement to aid the integration of refugees, services in devolved areas such as language training, community integration, health care and education are provided. Inevitably, when those services are effective and children are integrated into the community—as can be argued in the case of the Vucaj family—it is harder for a family when a judgment is made that they should return to their home country. At each step of the way, it is incumbent on all Government agencies to approach asylum and immigration controls in a humane way and to have more accurate and reliable information. Equally, it is incumbent on the immigration service and the Home Office to recognise the deep concerns of the Scottish Parliament on the issue.
The issue is not an easy one; it is not a black-and-white one that can be solved straight away.
Currently, nearly 6,000 asylum seekers are living in Glasgow. The issue is not a small one nor is it easy to address. The Executive's amendment, around which I hope the Parliament will coalesce, sends out the right signals from the Parliament that the interests of the child are at the centre of all our policies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer; your apology is accepted. I am also grateful to "Good Morning Scotland" for advising me this morning of the Executive's policy on the issue. I was pleased to hear it. When I read through the Green party motion, I did not find a great deal in it with which I could disagree. I, too, was shocked to hear the report on the way in which the Vucaj family were removed from their home in Glasgow—a move that involved an 18-year-old young man being handcuffed as if he were a violent criminal and his 13-year-old sister being removed in her pyjamas.
As soon as I became aware of it, I signed Bill Butler's motion on the subject. I also congratulate the schoolchildren who supported the family in the way that they did. If the reports are correct—and there has been no real denial—the officials who carried out the operation did not act in accordance with the statement on the removal of failed asylum seekers that a Home Office spokesperson made, which I found on the BBC website. The statement said:
"This is always done in the most sensitive way possible, treating those being removed with courtesy and dignity."
Clearly, that did not happen in this case and the failure to do so should be investigated. Advice and guidance should be issued on how to deal appropriately with families whose asylum application has been refused.
However, we need to acknowledge that most people in this country believe in controlled immigration and asylum policies. I get far more representations from constituents who think, mistakenly, that we are too soft on asylum and immigration than I do from people who are concerned that we are too tough. Unfortunately, asylum seekers are often exposed to prejudice and racism. Often, that is fuelled by inaccurate reporting in the section of the press that tends to be of the more conservative disposition. If the UK does not have an open-doors policy—for which, as I said, there is little support in this country—we have to find a suitable mechanism to deal with cases where asylum is refused.
We also have to recognise that, as some asylum seekers have been in this country for many years, the circumstances in their country of origin may have changed and may now be safe. However, the memories of the asylum seekers will be of the country as it was when they left. They may need reassurance—perhaps from the consulate of their country of origin—that things have changed. They may also need some form of assistance and counselling.
I am sorry, but I do not have much time. I would give way if I could.
Four and a half years ago, I removed my children from their school in Prestwick to a school down in Dumfries. My two younger children were distraught beyond my expectations about having to leave their school friends and move 60 miles away from their home. Imagine the situation of the child of an asylum seeker who may have been in Scotland for many years. They will have been educated in this country and have little memory of the schooling and other aspects of the country from which they came. They will also have become used to speaking in English with their school friends, yet they will be sent back to a country where they do not speak the language. They will probably never see their Scottish friends again and may completely lose contact with them. People in those sorts of circumstances need to be treated with understanding, sensitivity, compassion and support and not with handcuffs or body armour.
On "Good Morning Scotland", Patrick Harvie asked when the UK Government takes responsibility, as did Robin Harper in the chamber. The Government takes responsibility at the time at which the asylum application is refused. I believe that Scottish Executive agencies have an important role to play in supporting those families as they prepare for their return to their country of origin. We need to focus on the ways in which we can help and support those families. We do not accept that people should be thrown out of the country as if they are criminals.
The tone of the debate was set by Robin Harper who, in an eloquent speech, spoke about the fundamentals of the subject. The fundamental aspect of the debate is about the fundamental values that define our society and transcend religion and party politics, which those of us in the fortunate and privileged position of having been elected to the chamber have a duty to uphold.
At the moment, it is de rigueur to be critical of the United States of America. Indeed, I have taken
We live in a democracy and civic society through which the rule of law permeates. In a just society, what is important is how we treat not just the powerful and the rich but the weak and the powerless. Fundamentally, the debate is about the values of our society. It is about how we wish to define ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others. Frankly, I think that the situation is shameful. I do not wish to go into immigration policy or the particular circumstances in detail—they have been enunciated much more eloquently by others—but what took place and is taking place in Glasgow is shameful.
The Executive's position is untenable. I was happy to march with Robert Brown under the banner "Not in our name" when we were opposing what was self-evidently wrong—a war in Iraq without backing from the United Nations. What is happening to asylum-seeking families should not take place in our name. The fact that what is happening is fundamentally morally wrong and against the creeds and codes of all in society has not changed; the only thing that has changed is that Robert Brown is now in ministerial office. He is trying to defend the indefensible, rather than standing up and saying that it is fundamentally wrong and refusing to accept it.
We welcome the Executive's shift to saying that it will take action, but when will it do so? When ministers are successful in an election and are elected to office, they are given responsibility, which brings with it rights and obligations.
No. I stand four-square behind Kathleen Marshall. Some things are self-evidently wrong. Even Dr Murray touched on that. The situation is simply untenable. To seek to justify or support such things is unsustainable. Ministers are given an opportunity when they are elected to power. They have a duty to stand up and act. The Executive's position is to pass the buck and say, "It's nothing to do with us," but that is
We need the Executive to stand up for the fundamental values that have been enunciated by political parties, the churches and the children's commissioner, and to represent what we believe is fundamentally right about our society. We do not need the Executive's limp-wristed, hand-wringing position that it will do its best and will go once more cap in hand to London to say, "Please don't do this." What is happening is fundamentally wrong and should not be happening.
Robert Brown marched under the banner "Not in our name", but he should now be taking action on something that is fundamentally wrong and goes against the tenets of our society. He is in power. He must act.
I congratulate Green party members on calling this debate, which is timely and important. The motion is thoughtful and couched in the language of practical politics, for which they deserve the chamber's thanks.
I welcome the young people in the gallery from Drumchapel High School in my constituency. Their efforts on behalf of their friends Nimet and Saida Vucaj and the Vucaj family have been exemplary. Those new and indigenous young Scots who have organised a petition that has already attracted hundreds of signatures—as they did successfully in March on behalf of the Murselaj family—are fine examples of the philosophy behind the Scottish Executive's one Scotland, many cultures campaign. My earnest hope, which I am sure is shared by every member, is that their efforts, along with those of school staff, the churches, Positive Action in Housing and hundreds of ordinary Scots, will prove successful and the Vucaj family will be returned to their home here in Scotland. I accept that the decision lies with the Home Office, but I hope that at the very least the decision is made to grant a stay of removal pending a full case review.
As a Glasgow city councillor, I was party to the decision to welcome asylum-seeker families and offer them refuge in my city. That was the correct decision to make and I am proud that my city took it. In the years since, the Executive has had, in co-operation with council colleagues, a good record in accommodating asylum seekers, assisting them in the process of integration and ensuring that they have the facilities and resources that they require. I congratulate the Executive on investing more than £2 million in integration projects and language classes; on persuading the Scottish
However, none of us can be proud of the way in which the Vucaj family—and before them the Murselaj family—were forcibly evicted from their home in Scotstoun in a dawn raid on 13 September by a 16-strong immigration snatch squad. None of us can be proud of an episode in which an 18-year-old boy is handcuffed by one of those officers and the youngest child is removed in her pyjamas. Such a procedure is utterly unacceptable and must be ended, which is why I am heartened and encouraged by the minister's amendment, which urges the Executive to liaise with its Westminster ministerial counterparts to agree a protocol to deal in a much more sensitive and civilised way with the children of asylum-seeking families who are facing detention and removal. I am also encouraged that discussions will take place to end practices such as dawn raids and the handcuffing and removal of children by large groups of officers in body armour.
I ask the minister also to consider opening up a dialogue with our partners in Westminster to explore the possibility of allowing children from asylum-seeker families who have already been in full-time education for a number of years at the very least to complete their education before a final decision is taken by the Home Office.
The Green motion and the SNP amendment contain nothing with which I disagree. I hope that the SNP will revise the position that it enunciated this morning. We have an opportunity. The Executive's amendment—and I mean this sincerely—is stronger and more proactive than the motion. It includes everything in the Green motion and also calls for action. I hope that members on all sides will consider supporting the Executive's amendment at decision time, so that the Parliament of Scotland can speak with one voice.
Asylum seekers and their families are an asset, not a liability. They are our friends, not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters.
I bring to the chamber's attention the plight of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people, which is so often overlooked. Just over 100 children and young people are
Imagine, please, young people and children arriving in our country whose parents have been persecuted or killed in war. What happens? Their hope of safety and sanctuary is not fulfilled. They can be faced with a lack of suitable accommodation. Many of them are forced to stay in homeless accommodation or are housed in some of the worst hostels and hotels for months on end. In that accommodation, they may not have access to cooking facilities and so have to live off takeaway junk food from the pitiful amount of money they have each week to spend on food. They are isolated, because of a lack of social support and social activities specifically designed to meet their needs. As with other asylum-seeking children and young people, racism is a major problem. Such experiences are all compounded by the fact that they may have no support from parents or guardians.
Unaccompanied asylum seekers have variable access to services. Unlike children of asylum-seeking families, unaccompanied asylum seekers are not supported by the national asylum support service. Children's organisations have said that the care that unaccompanied children and young people receive continues to be a lottery and is often inadequate. Many receive only basic services and are not provided with leaving-care support by local authorities.
A European Union directive from 2003 requires the appointment of independent representatives or guardians for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Home Office has consulted on that directive's implementation, but there is concern that Scotland has not been adequately included in the process. In his representations to the UK Government, the minister must ensure that unaccompanied children are appointed an independent guardian to advise, support and protect them in legal proceedings. He must ensure that such children have access to independent advice and advocacy. It is shocking that unaccompanied child asylum seekers are basically left to fend for themselves. The welfare of those children is paramount. Whether we have one child or 100 children in that situation, they require protection and support. I hope that the minister will press the issues urgently.
The Executive's amendment is all very well, but it does not go far enough; it does not acknowledge that what has happened in Drumchapel is
I congratulate the Green party on its well-expressed motion, which deals with an important subject. I do not always congratulate the Executive, but I do so now. Its response to the motion shows growing maturity and its amendment is constructive. Most of the speeches have been constructive, too, although I have been trying to seek an analogy for Christine Grahame's speech. I recently re-read "Tam O'Shanter", and I had the thought that Christine Grahame's contribution to consensus was similar to the Cutty-sark's contribution to the tail of Meg, Tam O'Shanter's horse—she ripped it off. There is a place for Opposition—Kenny MacAskill expressed the SNP's view fairly—but a strident and wrecking approach is not helpful.
There is a saying about taking pleasure in a sinner who repenteth. Tommy Sheridan's view is that the Executive is a bit late to the ball, but at least it has got to the ball and is kicking it in the right direction, for which it should take credit.
With all honesty, the Scottish Labour Party deserves a great deal of credit on the issue, because it is difficult for it to criticise the Westminster Government, which is run by the Labour Party, on the details of its treatment of asylum seekers or on the whole policy. The Executive's amendment is critical of some aspects of the London Government's policy, which shows growing maturity and is to be welcomed. The matter shows that a devolved structure can work. There are problems in such a structure, as Kenny MacAskill set out, but if the London Government instructs the police legitimately—but in our view wrongly—to act in a certain fashion, they have to do that. We cannot stop them and tell them to act differently; instead, we must try to persuade the people who make the decisions behind the scenes.
I am sorry, but I must continue.
A devolved system has difficulties—there is a down side and an up side. We must work behind the scenes, which is what the ministers are doing. They have made progress on the situation at Dungavel, as Robert Brown said. The issue is a strong one and, although I am not a strong protester and would not progress very well in Tommy Sheridan's party, I have been to Dungavel with Robert Brown and others and found the situation there to be awful. However, we have secured improvement.
The Greens deserve great credit, the Conservatives have a constructive point of view and the SNP has legitimately made its point of view, but the best thing would be for the Parliament to unite around the Executive's constructive amendment and for the ministers to work hard behind the scenes to persuade Labour ministers in London that they have got the matter wrong.
I agree with Bill Butler and Donald Gorrie that the Executive amendment should be supported. I should state my interest in the matter, as a former resident in Dungavel, under a somewhat different regime.
In examining deportation, we must focus clearly on which issues are devolved and which are not. It is significant that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education has been involved in an inspection at Dungavel, although it was called to do that as an expert, on the invitation of HM inspectorate of prisons for England and Wales. It should be open to the minister to request that HMIE and the Social Work Inspection Agency should be involved whenever appropriate and that their recommendations should be most carefully considered. I say that because, under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995—which I took through the House of Commons—the interests of the child are paramount. I know of no law to the effect that children in Dungavel do not come under the general umbrella of that act, so it is entirely possible that it applies to them. If that assumption is correct, it follows that local authority social services could have an involvement in the matter.
The five key principles of the 1995 act are clear: first, each child has a right to be treated as an individual; second, each child who can form a view on matters that affect him or her has the right to express those views if he or she so wishes; third, parents should normally be responsible for the upbringing of their children and should share that responsibility; fourth, each child has the right to protection from all forms of abuse, neglect or
HM inspectorate of prisons for England and Wales published a report in March that expressed disappointment that one of its previous recommendations had not been implemented because of the Home Office immigration and nationality directorate's lack of engagement with the proposal. The recommendation was that independent assessments should be carried out of the welfare of children who are held in Dungavel, and fed into decisions about appropriate care for them. The March report's main recommendations were, first, that
"There should be proper and humane management of the movement of detainees, particularly those with children, who should not be subject to unnecessary and lengthy journeys"; second, that
"Agreed procedures for the detention of children, at sufficiently senior level, recording full consideration of all factors, should be adhered to"; and third, that
"The detention of children should be exceptional and for the shortest possible period."
I am bound to say that the delay in dealing with applications in the first place bears a major responsibility for the fact that we are having the debate at all. It is extremely important that children's issues are addressed with sensitivity. I hope that the Home Office is prepared to listen to our experts in the education and social work inspectorates, the recommendations of which are well founded. The Home Office must be reminded of the key point, which is that, whatever the parents may or may not have done to cause them to be in Dungavel or in reception centres, children are there through no fault of their own.
I am grateful to the Greens for having the debate, which is yet another debate among the many that we have had in six years about what is being done in our name to asylum seekers and their children in this country. We must keep the issue at the top of the agenda, because it has been ratcheted up and the situation is getting worse. Robin Harper spoke eloquently and at length about the Vucaj family's case, which again brought the issue to the public attention. However, such situations have been happening for years, over and over again.
It is all very well for the minister to tell us that the Executive is doing wonderful stuff with asylum seeker children who live here while their cases are being heard and their appeals are going through,
All of a sudden we hear talk about what the wonderful Executive is going to do. Last night I received a parliamentary answer—printed today—about that. It is the usual mealy-mouthed stuff:
"Responsibility for immigration and asylum ... rests with the Home Office ... The Executive is in regular dialogue ... on a wide range of issues."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 22 September 2005; S2W-19063.]
This morning, we wake up and discover that, while that parliamentary answer was coming to me, Jack McConnell and whoever else was sitting with journalists, trying to bail themselves out of the situation that they have got themselves into by allowing such things to happen to children in our country.
Robert Brown can say all he likes about the constitutional agreement and how that is what people voted for back in 1997, but that was before children were being dragged kicking, screaming and terrified from their beds in the middle of the night. I believe that if the Executive went to the people now and asked whether they thought that it was acceptable that that was going on, and told them that the Executive could do nothing about it, people would vote very differently for who was governing their country.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton mentioned the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. I have been asking for years what the Executive has been doing to ensure that the Home Office complies with the terms of the 1995 act. The answer that I get is: "It's the Home Office's responsibility. It's nothing to do with us." I do not believe that for a minute. The law that applies in this country under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 applies to every single child in this country. Is the Executive really saying that there is a little piece of Scotland—wherever an asylum-seeker family happens to be—that is not Scotland and over which the Executive therefore has no jurisdiction? If that is the case, the Executive had better think again about what kind of Government it is running.
Many have gone on about Christine Grahame and her decision to abstain from voting on the Executive amendment. I completely agree with her on abstaining, because the Executive has been abstaining for years from any responsibility. Let us consider what the Executive is saying in the amendment. It is saying that it will
"continue discussions ... with a view to agreement that the Home Office will work closely with services for children and young people before ... removal".
What is that? That is nothing. That is no more than the Executive trying to dig itself out of the hole that it has been put in by the strength of public opinion on the issue. I will tell the Executive what it should do: it should take a stand. It should say to the ministers in the Home Office, and all ministers at Westminster: "It's not happening here. We're not doing it." The Executive should use the Vucaj family as the benchmark and tell the ministers: "They're not going anywhere. They're staying here, because they are part of our country. They are the fresh talent that we are looking for."
I start by congratulating the Green party on introducing today's debate and I join Robin Harper and Bill Butler in paying tribute to the students from Drumchapel High School—I was pleased to speak to them before the debate. We should all congratulate them and wish them success in their campaign. We were all moved by what they told us and they have been a great force for good on this issue. Schools are at the heart of preparing young people to live in a multicultural and inclusive society. Having asylum-seeker children attend our schools is not just a positive experience for asylum seekers but for all the children in that school.
In a moment.
The positive and harmonious relations in Drumchapel and elsewhere are a standing rebuke to the scandalous negative images of asylum seekers that are so prevalent in the media and elsewhere and that are so damaging to asylum seekers and refugees, to ethnic minority communities more generally and to the vigorous anti-racist policy that we are determined to pursue, all the more urgently after the appalling increase in race-hate crimes over the summer.
I give way to whichever member it was.
The twins here.
Does the minister think that it is a positive experience for the children in Drumchapel to have their friends dragged away from them and to be unable to see them any more? I have had e-mails from some of those youngsters, who cannot understand why that is happening. Is that a positive impression of Government in our country?
It is absolutely appalling. I referred to the positive and harmonious relations between asylum seekers and others in the school, if that was the starting point for the intervention.
We are determined to send out positive
However, over and above that, we have our own widespread responsibilities to asylum seekers and refugees, which is why two or three years ago we formed the Scottish refugee integration forum and we had a wide-ranging action plan, which we are implementing and monitoring on an on-going basis; £9 million is being spent on that. There are far too many projects to mention, many of which work with young people. Operation reclaim in Sighthill in Glasgow, for example, provides asylum seekers and indigenous Scottish children with a safe environment in which to play sport and form friendships. Many other projects and initiatives are being funded, for example the frontline housing advisory service, which is run by Positive Action in Housing. I mention Positive Action in Housing because of the major role that it has played in this area in general and in the Vucaj family campaign in particular.
I shall be chairing a reconvened Scottish refugee integration forum very soon and will be updating the action plan. We are taking strong action in devolved areas. We are sending out and will continue to send out positive messages about asylum seekers as part of our anti-racist work. We shall also engage constructively with the Westminster Government.
I begin by reading to members:
"My name is Jamie. I am 18 years old and Elvis Vucaj is a really close friend of mine. It scares me that one day, me, Elvis and my mates can be out having fun—enjoying life. Then the next I am writing this, in the hope that someone realises the mistake they have made and allows this family to return to their home.
I remember the first time I met Elvis and Nimet. It was on a trip with our school. We went to Edinburgh castle. Both brothers were shadows of who they are now. Both have grown up a lot and become more confident in what they are doing. For what? I spoke to Elvis and Nimet on the phone the other day. They are not the happy, excited guys I knew a few weeks ago—they sound exhausted, tired and scared.
I told them not to give up, because I won't—Scotland deserves them and I miss them. I don't want to lose them."
I hope that members on all sides will agree that that is more powerful than any speech about devolved and reserved competencies.
Earlier this month, the commissioner for children and young people called for a "public outcry" against what she described as
"terrorising children of failed asylum seekers" and the "inhumane" treatment of "wee, quiet families". Jamie has added his voice to that outcry. As we have heard, other people in Bill Butler's constituency, people from Drumchapel High School and the community around it—a community from which those children have been wrenched—have added their voices. The United Reform Church, the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church have added their voices.
Is there any sphere of life in which this situation would be acceptable? We have seen behaviour that falls short of what we expect in a civilised society. I am pleased that, after today's debate, we will be able to say that the Parliament did not remain silent. We have added our voices to the necessary outcry about the harm that is being inflicted on children and their families in Scotland. What matters next is that action is taken. We want to give the fullest possible emphasis to our devolved responsibilities for child welfare.
I am sorry that I will not have time to mention everyone who spoke, but I want to thank some members in particular.
Robert Brown said that we are discussing an issue on the border between devolved and reserved institutions and he was right to say that we should have the confidence to debate it. However, it is not only the issue but the children themselves who are being sent across the border. Asylum policy is the UK's responsibility, but if removals are being carried out in a manner that we do not think meets our standards of welfare, our responsibility does not evaporate.
Christine Grahame said that what is being done is too little, too late, that we have heard the Executive's words before and that we need action.
I agree, but I am glad that the Executive has gone further than it has in the past. It is more important now to continue to press ministers on the what, when and how of the commitments that they have made today than it is to lament what was not done in the past.
Mary Scanlon focused on the practices used and acknowledged that they are unnecessary. I hope that Mary Scanlon will consider supporting the Green motion, which specifically says that the practices are unnecessary. She also mentioned the education of the children of asylum seekers. Surely we all acknowledge that the Vucaj children were getting their education in Drumchapel High School and that they should go back there.
Jeremy Purvis applauded Robert Brown's constructive approach in previous debates. I hope that members will agree that the Greens have taken a similarly constructive approach. He mentioned the robustness of the Executive's position. He is quite right to say so, but I say again that we must press the Executive on the detail of what it will do, when it will do it and how it will do it.
Other members—some of whom did not get the opportunity to speak—entered the chamber hoping that they would be able to support the Executive's amendment but, I am sorry to say, feel less able to do so having heard the debate. We must hear concrete commitments to action rather than caveats about UK responsibilities. However, I share Bill Butler's hope that today's debate will lead to stronger action.
Donald Gorrie spoke of this Parliament's growing maturity. He is right to mention that, but the Vucaj children and others cannot wait long for us to find our maturity. The experiences that they have gone through have meant that they have had to grow up fast and so must we.
I thank the Executive and the SNP for lodging amendments that are in keeping with the spirit in which we brought this debate to the chamber. We understand that this is not an issue that should divide us on party lines. Of course, the parties have different positions on asylum policy. Too often, UK ministers use words such as "robust" and "control" when they are talking about asylum policy. I want ministers who are responsible for asylum to use words such as "compassion" and "welcome".
The Executive has gone further than it has before. It begins to raise its voice more strongly. I am sorry that I cannot support its amendment but that is only because it deletes that part of the motion that states specifically that the practices that are listed are unnecessary. It is important that the message that we send today is that the behaviour that we have witnessed is unnecessary and must stop.
However, if the Executive's amendment is agreed to, I appeal to all parties to support the amended motion. The Greens will certainly do so. More important than the precise form of words that we agree in a motion is the fact that our voices will have been added to the outcry. That is how it should be, but it must not satisfy us. The words of MSPs or of our motions will mean little if the dawn raids continue, if children continue to arrive at school to find their friends simply gone, or if the UK Government's policy does not change. Our words will also mean little if the Vucaj family are not returned to the community that has become their home.
The Executive has an opportunity to make clear its intention to act. We want it to say what it is going to do. We want it to come back to the Parliament to say when it has done it and what the results were. If the UK Government continues to remove these children from our country, we owe it to the children not to remove them from our consciences.