Today is universal children's day. It is also the anniversary of the 1959 declaration of the rights of the child and of the 1989 convention on the rights of the child. It therefore seems a suitable day to try to bring the attention of Ministers to bear on one of the most tragic and socially excluded groups of children in Britain in 2007—children in immigration detention.
Such children are uniquely vulnerable, partly because of the media climate around immigration and asylum, so it is possible to treat them in a way in which the state would not treat other children in this country. Children in immigration detention are vulnerable because, as we all know, when party leaders consult the polls, they find over and over again that one of the issues that people are most concerned about is immigration, asylum and borders. The Government have chosen to meet that fear and the concern reflected in opinion polls with an increasingly draconian system of immigration control.
This group of children is also uniquely vulnerable because who speaks for them? I know, because I have spoken to Ministers about this, that Ministers get constant pressure from Labour MPs in marginal seats who are worried about public opinion on immigration, and MPs who are calling for ever stricter and more draconian regimes. The pressure is all one way.
I apologise in advance that another commitment will take me away before the end of the debate, but as a Labour MP in a marginal seat, I just want to say that the pressure is not all one way. Quite a lot of my constituents are concerned in particular about children in this situation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not saying that all the pressure is one way, but the majority of pressures on Ministers are in one direction, whether they are pressures from the media, polling data or what MPs say on the Floor of the House and privately. That is why this group of children is uniquely exposed and uniquely vulnerable.
I remind colleagues that when the question of detaining children originally came up, in the 1998 White Paper entitled "Fairer, Faster and Firmer—A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum", the Government were saying that families should not normally be detained for more than a few days and only if they were due for removal. The starting position was that the detention of children and their families would be the exception rather than the rule and would last a few days at most. That was the basis on which MPs put the legislation through the House. The position now is that children are being detained in detention centres for up to three months and beyond. I shall come to the facts of the situation later in my remarks, but if people think about it, it is extraordinary that one of the wealthiest liberal democracies in the world should find itself locking up children arbitrarily for indefinite periods. We came to that position as a result of media and political pressure.
What are the parameters of the problem? It is not easy to establish the figures for the numbers of children held in immigration detention at any one time. The best figures available to me are provided in the Home Office publication "Asylum Statistics", which says that on
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems relates to the statistics and figures? They are totally unreliable; we cannot obtain accurate figures from anyone. A report by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in November 2006 called "Seeking Asylum Alone" shows that, according to Home Office figures, 2,755 unaccompanied and separated children applied for asylum in the UK in 2004, but the number of Refugee Council referrals was 3,867. I know that these children are not necessarily detained, but where are they if they are not detained?
The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point, to which I will return. Whatever people's views on our system of immigration control, whether they think that it is too strict, not strict enough or just very badly managed, which is my view, we cannot have a robust system without the figures, and both on the general question of children and on the particular question of children in immigration detention, the figures are not robust enough. I have been very disappointed, in doing the research and looking at previous responses to questions, with Ministers' approach. Whatever the House believes the direction of travel should be on immigration control, at the very least we need robust figures. On the basis of the figures available to me, we are talking about some 200 children in the first quarter of 2007, but I will return to the question of the figures.
Let me begin to talk about the conditions in which the children are held. There are general issues that make those conditions deplorable. The first general issue that makes the detention of children for immigration purposes deplorable is the arbitrary nature of the detention process. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the fact that a child who has committed a criminal offence and is put in prison, who is serving a sentence at Her Majesty's pleasure—that is how sentencing is termed for children under a certain age—has more rights than a child held in immigration detention and is dealt with in a more transparent way. Immigration detention is not ordered or sanctioned by a court; it is an administrative power. People are not being detained because they have committed a criminal offence. That means that there is a lack of transparency and accountability and it gives the immigration service the kind of control over people's lives and rights that a court would not have. The first thing to say about the detention of children is the arbitrary nature of the process.
The second general issue, which is worth a debate on its own, is medical treatment. The medical treatment available to detainees in a detention centre has been a general concern. I want to refer to issues raised by doctors and groups such as Médecins sans Frontières. It is tragic that an organisation that is used to dealing with medical concerns in war zones and famine regions had to come to Britain to do an investigation into our detention centres. Among the issues raised by doctors in research that I have seen are depression and suicide. Many people in detention centres have post-traumatic stress disorder or are depressed. Some have been tortured and are not receiving therapy for that. Some are HIV-positive, but are not receiving the treatment that they should receive in the detention centre. Some come from areas of the world where malaria is prevalent, have lost their immunity to malaria after coming to the UK and have difficulty getting the proper course of treatment. Some suffer from tuberculosis. Those are general medical issues covering everyone being held in detention centres.
I suggest to Ministers that a detention centre is a peculiarly unsuitable atmosphere for detaining children. The arbitrary nature of the process—people do not know what will happen to them—and the problems with medical treatment are two general concerns.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern about such children, who come from outside the EU, which is that there is no system for appointing a guardian ad litem, a lawyer or anybody to have an interest in them while they are in Britain? They go into the system with no close friend and no support and just disappear. I am worried about children who disappear—not just those who disappear in care, but those who disappear in detention—and go back home on a plane without anybody knowing anything about them. Is she thinking of saying something about that?
I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. The way we are discharging our duty of care to such children simply is not satisfactory or appropriate for a country such as this in the 21st century.
Having spoken generally about the problems in detention centres, I move to some specifics relating to children. I could quote from many pressure groups and lobbyists, but I cannot do better than to quote the Government's own chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, on her most recent inspection of Yarl's Wood immigration centre in February 2006:
"Our most important concern...remained the detention of children."
She had raised that concern in her previous visit to Yarl's Wood. One of the disturbing things about the 2006 report is how little had been done since her previous visit.
"Yarl's Wood held 32 children at the time of the inspection, seven of whom had been there for more than 28 days. There was still no evidence that children's welfare was taken into account when making decisions about initial and continued detention. Though a social worker had recently been appointed, her role was unclear...We understand that she subsequently resigned."
I have known Anne Owers for years, ever since she was campaigning on immigration issues and I was a lobbyist on race and immigration issues. If the chief inspector of prisons puts such a paragraph into the introduction of her inspection report on a detention centre, it should not take a debate such as this to make Ministers realise that our treatment of children in detention is not satisfactory.
I should like to allow colleagues to hear the voices of children in detention, because in the debate on this issue—which is driven by concerns about polling, pressures from MPs and the latest front page of the Daily Express, among other things—not enough attention is paid to the voices of children. The Children's Commissioner for England visited Yarl's Wood in 2005. His report said many things about what he saw, including one thing that I thought disturbing:
"During our visit to Yarl's Wood, we spoke to a number of children", as that was the main purpose of the visit.
"Not one of these children had any clear idea or, in the case of some children, any idea at all, of why they were detained at Yarl's Wood."
It is one thing to say that a robust immigration control system requires the detention of children, but what immigration control system requires the detention of young children who do not know why they are there or what will happen to them?
A Save the Children report quoted the mother of a detained child:
"After the detention Michael was in a bad way. The bedwetting was a problem again and he had nightmares. He wouldn't go upstairs without me. At 9 pm when I took him to bed, I had to go to bed as well because he wouldn't let me leave...Michael was afraid of the police coming again. He was always afraid."
"We have experienced the case of Antonio, whose father committed suicide in Yarl's Wood in order that his teenage son should not be deported with him. Antonio went through the whole of that trauma and is now being cared for by a family in south Leeds. But he is not alone. The fear of the 5 am knock on the door pervades many Leeds families."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 14 December 2006; Vol. 687, c. 1674.]
A Children's Society representative says:
"We frequently witness first-hand the impact detention has on children. We are supporting a family in Yorkshire who were detained and then released. The mother has since been very ill, partly as a result of stress and not being able to get proper medical treatment while they were in detention."
The issue of medical treatment will come up again, and I shall return to it.
"The five-year-old, the youngest child, was so traumatised by the experience that he became mute. He has had some counselling, but I understand that there are still huge problems, and he doesn't come to our project anymore because the bars on the windows upset him, so we have to visit him at home."
A specific case was passed to me this morning that I should like Ministers to look into—the case of Meltem Avcil, whose 14th birthday is tomorrow. She will spend it behind bars in Yarl's Wood detention centre, where she has been detained with her mother for almost three months. In August this year, 12 immigration officials carried out a dawn raid on her home in Doncaster. The two were taken to Yarl's Wood in a caged van and have been held there ever since. Since being incarcerated at Yarl's Wood, Meltem has had no appropriate schooling. She and her mother have had poor medical and social support. Her psychological state has deteriorated and she has had to be taken to hospital after self-harming. We all know that we need a robust immigration system, but what immigration system creates as casualties traumatised children—children spending three months behind bars, celebrating their birthdays behind bars and not knowing what will become of them?
I return to the chief inspector of prisons, because what she said is important in this context, and Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons cannot be accused of being partisan or hearing only one side of the story. She raised a number of concerns in her report last year. She said that, despite the fact that there was a social worker in the centre, her role was unclear, that children were being detained for as long as 112 days, and that in most cases children were being detained for too long. She found that Yarl's Wood was still not performing sufficiently well in terms of purposeful activity. Immigration officials were still found to be leaving centre staff and detainees in the dark about their status and removal dates—again we return to the issue of children not knowing why they are there or what will happen to them.
The chief inspector of prisons' 2005 recommendation that the detention of children should be exceptional and for no more than a few days has not been achieved. In 2005 the inspector also recommended:
"Initial authorisation procedures should be strictly followed and an immediate independent welfare and needs assessment carried out, to set out a care plan and inform decisions on continued detention."
That had not been achieved at the time of the last report. The inspectorate could not even obtain data. Even for Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons, the staff at Yarl's Wood could not produce data showing whether there had been any changes to the pattern for detaining children.
"No initial needs assessment was undertaken following the arrival of a child"; it took place only after 14 days' detention.
At the time of inspection, the reports that social workers were trying to produce were not being used by officers. Children who were interviewed reported feeling frightened at being taken into detention—one child was scared when the police broke down the door. The quality of education provision was still not up to scratch. Sufficient activities were not being provided for children. Staff were not receiving appropriate training. Detainees were still being told what beds they had to occupy, and families were being split up. Children were having to sleep with strangers. Those issues were all raised in 2005. When the inspectorate returned in 2006, it found that relatively little progress had been made.
I have spoken about the inspectorate because I believe that one cannot query the views expressed in its reports, but I want to mention also the views of other stakeholders and interested parties on what is happening to children in immigration detention. I begin by citing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I shall return later to the fact that the United Kingdom has entered a reservation to UN protocols in that regard.
We are the only country in the world. I shall return to the point because it is a grave and shameful matter.
The UNHCR regrets that the UK has made a reservation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in order to be able to pass immigration legislation without reference to its obligations under the CRC. It stated:
"UNCHR strongly disapproves of the UK's reservation in this area, which the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated is not compatible with the objects and purpose of the CRC. However, it is important to note that the reservation is at least limited to the passing of legislation only, and so would not appear to operate as a relevant factor in questions relating to operational matters, such as decisions made regarding the implementation of immigration detention policy in specific cases. The Government, therefore, is free to follow humanitarian and moral imperatives to inform its policies on the detention of children."
The Minister will doubtless be relieved to know that the Government are free to allow humanitarian and moral imperatives to inform their policies on the detention of children.
I turn to what other stakeholders and people who have visited those children have said. The Children's Society states:
"We don't think it's ever acceptable to detain children for the purposes of immigration control. In practice it's very difficult for families to abscond because they need contact with services like health and education and it's much harder for a family to disappear."
The Refugee Children's Consortium has called on the Government to use the UK Borders Act 2007 to stop the detention of children. The four UK children's commissioners have expressed "profound" concern about the detention of children.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that it views the detention of minors as
"a special cause for concern, and we are clear in our guidance that minors who are asylum seekers should not be detained at all...where exceptional circumstances necessitate the detention of asylum seeking children, states should also make provision for the independent monitoring of the mental health of detained asylum-seeking children, which should be facilitated by access to appropriate non-governmental organisations".
Save the Children, in its report "No Place Like Home", suggested that children in detention were vulnerable on account of being children, being detained and being immigrants. The all-party group on refugees published a report in July 2006, to which the Government have not responded, saying that the detention of children
"makes a mockery of children's rights legislation".
Finally, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its report on the treatment of asylum seekers in March 2007, found that the UK was in breach of its human rights obligations by detaining children. One of the report's authors, Lord Avebury, said that
"lack of accountability for all aspects of the detention of children pervades every level of policy and practice, and is exemplified by the Government's steadfast refusal to publish comprehensive statistics on the matter."
The lack of accountability pervades every level of policy and practice. Today's debate is my humble attempt to try to shed some light on the process and to bring some accountability to it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. She will agree, I think, that there are two separate issues. One is whether the detention of children is ever justified. The other is how they are treated during the period of detention, if there is one. Having spoken to many constituents about the issue, I know that there is a certain acceptance that a short period of detention may sometimes be necessary rather than simply releasing the child, with all the risks that that might entail. However, there is overwhelming support for the greatest possible care for the children during the short period for which they might be detained. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. When the matter originally came before Parliament, there was a consensus that detaining the family for one or two days might be necessary as part of the process of removal. However, no one taking part in that debate—some hon. Members who are here today were present then—ever envisaged children being detained for three months or beyond. No one ever envisaged that periods of detention would be so long.
I turn to what the Government are doing. I would not want it to be thought that the Government had paid no attention to lobbyists. First, the Minister for Borders and Immigration made a welcome statement about the need to incorporate a code of practice on the treatment of children as we rolled out the borders legislation. That statement was greeted with some gratitude by those who had lobbied on the issue.
Let me set out the Government's position on some of the issues that I raised this morning. First is the question of the reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A question was tabled about the subject in July and the immigration Minister responded. He said:
"The Government believe the reservation remains justified in order to maintain an effective immigration control."
The Government justify the reservation in the name of immigration control. We come back to the media and polling pressures—and the political pressure. In the end, a robust and sustainable system of immigration control, which is what Members from all parties want, has to be a system that the community as a whole, including even the asylum-seeking community, believe is firm but fair. A system of immigration control that is chaotic, badly run and contains a deeply flawed approach to vulnerable people such as children, will never achieve a consensus, and it will continue to be problematic. In his written answer, the Minister also said:
"we are proposing to introduce a code of practice to ensure that in carrying out its functions in the UK the Border and Immigration Agency takes appropriate steps to keep children safe from harm while they are in the UK."—[Hansard, 9 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1350W.]
That was a welcome statement. However, Ministers have also said things that were not quite so welcome. For instance, in a debate on asylum seekers in Westminster Hall in March 2007, my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn raised the question of the detention of children. The Minister said:
"We have also debated the question of detention. I am anxious to explore alternatives to detaining children. Sometimes, parents have a responsibility too; when I sign off cases of children who have been in detention for some time, I often find out that that has been because their parents have been disruptive or abusive or have exhibited dangerous behaviour towards staff".—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 482WH.]
What is the Minister for Borders and Immigration saying but that children are being detained because of misbehaviour by their parents? I urge the Minister for the Home Department to read again the relevant UN convention. It is quite wrong and contrary to best national practice that children should be detained or punished as punishment for the behaviour of their parents, but that is what the immigration Minister said in March 2007.
In response to efforts in debates on the UK Borders Act 2007 in October to get further protection for children, Ministers spoke about the problem of judicial review, saying that trying to give asylum-seeking children the protection of children's legislation would
"create a risk of judicial review and other legalistic devices being thrown against the agency, which will slow down its ability to remove people to the country".—[Hansard, 29 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 553.]
The Minister for Borders and Immigration said:
"Judicial review presents a serious problem: between January and March this year we received an average of 79 judicial reviews a week challenging enforcement activity...I fear that the change to section 11 proposed by the hon. Member for Ashford would simply multiply those barriers."—[Hansard, 9 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 233.]
I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years, representing a part of the country with one of the largest numbers of immigration, refugee and asylum seeker cases. No one knows better than I do about vexatious judicial review applications or deplores them more than I do. They are a waste of time and hold up false hope to my constituents, who all too often have to find money out of their own pockets to pay for applications that are going nowhere. When I see that they are going nowhere, it is now my practice to ring the solicitor and ask, "Where exactly are you going with this?"
I do not believe in giving false hope to constituents, and deplore the fact that some of the poorest and most marginalised constituents have to find hundreds of pounds to pay for what are essentially legal delaying devices. If there is a problem with vexatious judicial review applications, however, the Government must deal with it, and not use it as an excuse not to meet the spirit and letter of their obligations to children. One understands the point made about jails, but it does not justify the wholesale abrogation of this country's obligations under the convention on the rights of the child.
Another part of the Government's response, on which many people have lobbied, is the pilot project on whether there are alternatives to detention. Apparently, those in the pilot are in supported family accommodation in a hotel and are being helped to work towards voluntary return. Families are expected to stay within the pilot scheme for eight weeks. It is too early to say how it is going. Worth while as the pilot is, however, it does not help children in detention at the moment, there is no indication of how it has reduced, or will reduce, the number of such children, there is no information on the criteria for entry into the pilot scheme, and there is no sign of how it will be independently evaluated. Although the pilot is welcome, one would like to see more transparency and a hope of independent evaluation.
Furthermore, as part of the Government's response, we have a report, entitled "Review of UKIS Family Removals Processes". It was commissioned by Dave Roberts and written by Judith Evans. I do not know if either of them is in the Chamber today. If they are, I hope that they will not take this personally, but I found it a bizarre and inappropriate document. It talks about putting the welfare of the child at the centre of the removal process, but that seems to amount to the idea that, as part of the removal process, immigration officers should keep a particular eye on the child. It does not talk about referrals. The report states that officials
"should consider appointing named officers during any detention visit to review the reactions of the child to the process of detention."
Let us stop and think about that. Officials bang on someone's door at 8 am—they have said that they will not knock on people's doors before then—and a named official watches the child to see how they react to having their door knocked down and their mother dragged off to detention. What is the point of that, other than to make a token and derisory concession to the need to put the welfare of the child at the centre of our approach?
The report makes an even better recommendation. Obviously, the people who wrote it have read the same things as I have about how frightened and traumatised the children are by the process of being dragged away to detention, so they have thought very hard about what can be done about the psychological impact on children and proposed that the uniform of immigration officers be changed. They seem to be saying that what is frightening the children is the fact that the uniforms are navy blue or black and suggesting that they should be a pale colour—maybe pink or lilac! The idea that a child will be less traumatised by having their door kicked down and being dragged off to detention for an indefinite period by officers wearing a pink uniform rather than a black one has no place in an official Home Office report. Even when I was in the Home Office, which is now 25 years ago, we could have done better than that. It seems to me that the report was produced to address the widespread concern about the conditions in which such children are held, but it does not address the relevant points.
I know that hon. Friends involved closely with this issue wish to speak, so in conclusion, may I say that I am very concerned about the figures for children in detention? In particular, I was concerned by the response to a parliamentary question tabled in July by my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore, who asked the Secretary of State:
"how many cases were referred to Ministers for review of the continued detention of children on immigration grounds beyond 28 days in each of the last three years"?
If a child is to be kept beyond 28 days, the case is meant to be referred to a Minister, although no Minister has yet turned down such a request. The Minister replied:
"The information requested on referrals is not centrally collated and could be provided only...at disproportionate cost."—[Hansard, 2 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 916W.]
If we are serious about the welfare of children, at the very least we ought to keep centrally figures available on a monthly basis on the number of children we are holding beyond 28 days. Whatever a person's view on immigration control, it is not acceptable that we are keeping children beyond 28 days—in one case that I have raised with Ministers, for three months, in another, 112 days—and that those figures are not kept centrally. If one thing comes out of this debate, I hope that it will be a commitment from Ministers that from now on they will look at their record keeping on children and unaccompanied minors in detention. In particular, they ought to be able to provide Members, on request, with the number of children being held beyond 28 days.
We also need to do some really robust research into whether detaining families with children is necessary. The argument is that if we do not detain them, they will abscond. People assert that that is not the case. However, I am yet to see comprehensive research that proves it one way or the other. Above all, however, I put it to Ministers that reports that suggest changing the colour of uniforms are derisory. If Ministers are taking seriously the trauma that children go through, the Government need to commit themselves to bringing down the number of children in detention. How many times do international organisations, children's pressure groups, Her Majesty's inspectorate and the commissioner for children have to raise the point that the Government must bring down that number?
I accept what my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer said; there might be occasional cases when a child has to be kept in detention for a few days. But the fact that increasing numbers of children are being detained for increasing periods, and that Ministers cannot say at any given time how many are being held for longer than 28 days, simply is not acceptable. I accept that the front page of the Daily Express will not be calling, five days a week, for action on children in detention. It is also perfectly true that nobody ever made their career in government by building a fair and humane system of immigration; one builds a career by the constant rolling-out of crackdowns, toughness, fresh initiatives and so on. However, I put it to Ministers that in 2007, it is time for one of the wealthiest liberal democracies in the world to comply with international standards on the detention of children. As other Members have said, it makes a mockery of our children's rights legislation that children in immigration detention continue to be held in such numbers for so long and in such conditions. I hope that Ministers will take on board some of what is said this morning, and that we can make some progress on the issue.
I have only two points to make. Before I do so, however, I want to say that we owe a great debt of gratitude to Ms Abbott. Her speech was robust, compassionate and incisive, and the Minister will need a good quarter of an hour to deal with her points. I shall not cover the same area, but I thank her for raising the matter. It is constantly referred to in the Chamber, but not properly addressed.
My first point is on why the immigration service is so secretive. I suggest to the Minister that a group of Members—I should be one of them—might like to spend a day or two at the ports of entry, seeing what the immigration service does, particularly with regard to unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers and such like. I do not think that many hon. Members have seen what goes on there. I have joined the parliamentary police scheme, but I am halted every time I want to go to the immigration service, because it is outside the police's control.
I was part of the police operation.
I have an idea of some of the problems that the hon. Lady mentioned, and some hon. Members who are present, and certainly some active members of the all-party trafficking of women and children group, which I chair, would be much more friendly and well disposed towards the Government if they could see what was going on.
Secondly, the all-party group had the director of social work for Manchester before it about a month ago, and she referred to a different sort of detention, which it will be useful to mention. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are usually put in the care of the local authority, which is supposed to involve detention and to be a safe place, because the constant refrain from all people in positions of authority is that we must put children in a safe place. I saw a child walking along Oxford street when I was on patrol with two policemen, and they took the child, who they thought was 13, into the care of the police station in St. Marylebone, because they believed that it was a place of safety. If local authority care is a place of safety, why do so many children disappear from local authority care? The director of social work in Manchester said that some children who come into care in Manchester disappear within minutes, and that others do so within hours.
I raise the matter only because the hon. Lady raised the issue of detention. If detention is too open, the children disappear, but if we have it as she would, there is criticism, too, because it would be incarceration. I do not quite know how she would redress that balance, but at the moment too many children disappear. In a recent report from the Home Office, the number of children who were thought to be trafficked was 380, and about 190 of those, who were in the care of local authorities, disappeared.
I also want to mention some other numbers. I have only the 2004 figures, because the figures are up the creek, as we know, but we are talking about 55 unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, 55 from Somalia, 50 from Vietnam, 55 from Iran, 35 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 35 from Iraq, 35 from China, 25 from Eritrea, 20 from Uganda and 20 from Ethiopia. Those figures are for a three-month period only, so an enormous number of children come into this country unaccompanied. Some will end up in detention, some will end up in the care of the local authority, and an awful lot will go missing.
The Government do not have their hands on the problem, because when the children disappear they are never found. Many children from China "disappear"—they do not, of course, disappear, because an aunt, uncle or friend probably finds them. However, the number of unaccompanied children either in detention or in the care of the local authority is increasing. The numbers are about 3,000 to 4,000 a year, so it is a big problem.
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend Ms Abbott taking up the cause, the way in which she spoke and the great deal of research that she obviously undertook to present her case. It was a very fine contribution, which the House should note.
It is significant that the three Labour Members speaking today all have neighbouring constituencies: Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, Hackney, South and Shoreditch, and Islington, North.
I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. We all know about south Devon, but my point is about Labour Members.
We are involved in the subject because we have multicultural and multi-ethnic constituencies, and immigration issues are real, serious and demanding of their Members. As the MP for Islington, North, I take up a large number of immigration and asylum cases all the time. Although there is nothing wrong with having a public debate about immigration, I appeal to the media to have a debate occasionally about human rights, justice and the nasty underside of immigration law and control. It is easy to get a headline saying, "There is too much immigration. We must control it. There are too many problems," but the other side of the issue is the incredible contribution that migrants have made to our economy and standard of life. We would not have much of a health service, or, indeed, many other vital services, if there had not been immigration over the past 40 years.
Another consideration is the treatment of individuals who have been denied the right to remain in this country and who have been threatened with, or are in the process of, removal, and the detention that is then carried out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I visited Yarl's Wood, and we spent a lot of time there. We saw all its sections, had meetings with the staff and discussions with people who are held there—frankly, one must refer to them as inmates, because that is in reality what they are—and we looked at the whole place. Whatever the decorations, equipment or concerns of staff, the issue is that we lock children up. For the child to leave their parents to make or take a phone call, to go to the medical room or wherever else, they must go through a series of prison-style locked doors.
Children are very impressionable. Young children remember small things for the rest of their lives. All of us have photographic memories of certain instances that happened when we were three, four, five, six or seven years old—it is an impressionable age. I do not think that any of us was in detention at that age, and none of us went through that sort of experience, but that is the memory that we are imposing on a number of children through our policy. We should think seriously about that.
My hon. Friend and I visited Yarl's Wood because of our ongoing concern about the problem. I must say that although many of the staff at Yarl's Wood were pleasant and clearly trying to do their best, I was unimpressed with the medical officer, whom I think I met when my hon. Friend was in another part of the facility. When I raised with the medical officer the concerns that had been raised with me about medical treatment there, he was quite dismissive and refused to accept that there was a problem with people not being provided with proper treatment for malaria. In his attitude, manner and unwillingness to engage, he stood out from some of the other staff. He seemed to reflect the concerns that are raised over and over again about the quality of the medical treatment at Yarl's Wood.
I did hear some of that conversation, but not all of it. My hon. Friend raised those points. Children in detention should be under the protection of the Children Act 2004 and have access to full-quality national health service care and, if necessary, to social services protection, just like any other child in the country. I am not convinced that the reality of detaining children guarantees any of those things.
The campaigns on Yarl's Wood are considerable. Local people have often complained about it and there have been many demonstrations outside it. There is a history of problems in its administration. There is a wider point, however. On
"The campaign is demanding an end to detention for children because:
It causes children distress, depression, creates behavioural changes and confusion. It can cause and exacerbate physical health problems; and lead to lack of sleep and weight loss. It disrupts a child's education, and can seriously undermine their ability to learn. It runs contrary to various international standards, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child."
I could not have put it better myself. This country is proud of being a signatory to the UN charter, the European convention on human rights, the 1951 Geneva convention, the convention on the rights of the child, torture conventions and all the others. They apply to us here, as well as to the demands that we make on people in other parts of the world.
Bail for Immigration Detainees, which has done good work, produced a handbook and press release on
"No special consideration is given to the needs or best interests of children when deciding to detain a family. Detention is not clearly justified in each case, and existing alternatives to detention are not fully considered. Families, and children, do not fully understand why they are detained, have no automatic legal representation and their detention is not subject to a time-limit or independent review. Processes for welfare assessments of families and ministerial authorisation for detention beyond 28 days do not protect children from prolonged and harmful detention."
I hope that the Minister will give us some hope that all children who are being detained will be subject to ministerial decision so that we know exactly how many are being detained and why. I also hope that she will consider the Swedish system of having a caseworker assigned to a family, going through the whole process with them as a supportive mechanism. Very few, if any, children are detained there, and I do not see why we cannot do the same in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington rightly referred to the statements made by Anne Owers, the former chief inspector of prisons. Like her, I know Anne Owers well and admire her work hugely. The fact that she made an unannounced visit to Yarl's Wood some time ago, in February 2006, made her statements and expressed concerns about children in detention, should be taken seriously.
My final point has an international context, relating to UN conventions. I attend UN Human Rights Council meetings as a non-governmental observer and have taken part in a lot of activities surrounding them. Many people there fulminate about abuses of human rights around the world, and rightly so—I join in all that—but that also applies to us. The United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed its concern that
"asylum seekers have been detained in various facilities on grounds other than those legitimate under the ICCPR, including reasons of administrative convenience."
"UNHCR would like to encourage legislators to examine alternative arrangements for children to ensure that required contact management will be conducted in a child friendly manner and within the overall normative framework of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention."
We signed the convention on the rights of the child and pride ourselves on being a country that has democratic institutions and a robust defence of individual liberties and human rights. Detaining children defeats all those things. I appeal to the Minister to re-examine seriously the whole policy of detaining children and recognise the damage that it does to them. As a start, Ministers should know exactly how many children are detained at any one time and why, and they should have to give personal approval for that detention. That would show us to be taking seriously the rights and needs of children. I hope that we can move on to a system in which it is simply not necessary to detain children at all. We are damaging them, it is wrong and it is not morally correct.
Thank you, Mr. Olner, for calling me to give the first winding-up speech. I congratulate Ms Abbott not only on her speech but on using such parliamentary occasions in the most effective way possible—to highlight an ongoing area of Government policy that a Member regards as deficient, giving a Minister an opportunity to justify or, better still, alter and adjust it.
I agree with the hon. Lady's broad observations about the party political context that underpins much of the debate on immigration and asylum. It is shocking that the leaders of some political parties in this country seem to regard polling evidence in marginal seats as the main determining factor in deciding policies that have a direct impact on people's well-being. She mentioned the front page of the Daily Express, but it could have been any one of a number of papers—even the one that, until recently, was edited by the new chief spin doctor of the Conservative party. That paper takes an aggressive view of this area of policy and seems to put pressure on the Government and other political parties to respond in rather draconian terms, which often jars with the better and more liberal instincts of millions of people.
The problem with the current approach to immigration control is not just that it is draconian, which I personally deplore, but that it is wholly ineffective.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady's intervention, because I wholeheartedly accept her point. We hear a huge amount of extremely tough talk from the Government—they are "cracking down" on aspects of immigration policy the whole time—yet it does not seem to have worked. If it had, they would manifestly no longer need to crack down, because their policy would have achieved their desired objective.
Most people would accept that there may be a need for transitional arrangements while people's immigration and asylum applications are being processed. It may be that, for short periods of time, it is desirable not to separate children from their parents and that it is necessary to hold them in those circumstances. Most people, however, would wish their treatment to be entirely humane and that the atmosphere and surroundings in which they are kept are as close to a home and as far removed from a prison as possible.
I have three broad points to make. The first is about the Government not enforcing the UN convention on the rights of the child and about their desire to be seen as tough in this area. They seem to be concerned that anything that smacks of a UN-led, consensual, international approach would be seen as a sign of weakness. I do not know whether their position has changed, but I have a quote from a debate in the House of Lords, three years ago, in which the relevant Minister said that the Government believe that
"a duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children could severely compromise our ability to maintain an effective asylum system and strong immigration control".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 2004; Vol. 662, c. 996.]
Unless the Minister can tell us that the Government's position has since changed, that quote provides the context for our considerations this morning. The Government seem to be saying that the rights of children in those circumstances take second place, and will do so indefinitely, to what they see as the benefits of having a strong system, and that the well-being of the child is somehow incompatible with having overall strength and resilience within the system. If that has changed, I am sure that the Minister will correct me and inform us more widely.
My second point follows on from a point that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made. I was pleased that she quoted my noble Friend Lord Avebury regarding the absence of published figures for children who have been detained for immigration purposes. I have done some research in this area, and there seems to be a reasonable consensus that the figure is about 2,000. It is extraordinary, however, that we do not have a reliable figure. I cannot believe that this is genuinely an area in which the costs of compiling that information are, as the Government would put it, disproportionate. There seem to be all kinds of Government statistics being compiled in all kinds of areas in which people might have only a passing interest in knowing the facts and figures, whereas this is a central area of public interest. It behoves the Government to do the research and make that information available.
I have tried hard to get an indication of the scale of the situation. According to the figures supplied to me, 540 children were released from detention centres in the last quarter of 2005, so the information is already two years out of date. That figure was an increase of 20 per cent. on the previous quarter. If those figures were representative, they would indicate rising numbers of children in the system and an upward trend over time. It is an extraordinary state of affairs that we have to speculate about this situation, which should be made transparent and obvious to anyone who takes an interest.
My third point is one that Jeremy Corbyn touched on. As a mature and reasonably enlightened liberal democracy, we should look to learn best practice from other countries. The hon. Gentleman talked about the caseworker system in Sweden. Having a caseworker who can act as an advocate, provide legal representation, be a voice and give guidance to a child in those circumstances would be a wholly progressive step, and the Government should consider it in greater detail.
The Government talk about their "Every Child Matters" campaign, but if that is to be anything other than a slightly trite slogan, it must encompass children who are not British children within the mainstream education system. It must mean that literally every child has a set of rights and that we have a duty and obligation to them. It is on that basis that my party supports the "No Place for a Child" campaign of Save the Children, the Refugee Council and Bail for Immigration Detainees, which calls for alternatives to child custodies, such as granting such people bail, or having them attend reporting centres or stay in supervised community accommodation. The campaign also proposes a host of other measures that might lead to a more satisfactory resolution to this vexed issue than that which the Government have so far managed to achieve.
I, too, congratulate Ms Abbott on her introduction to the debate. It might surprise her to know that I agree with a degree of her analysis of the problem. I part company with her and Mr. Browne, however, on the idea that the debate is being driven by the tabloid press and by political leaders running before the tabloid press. The wider issue of immigration levels has become a matter of genuine concern for communities all over the country, not just those that are represented by Labour Members, as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out. It is therefore imperative that mainstream, moderate, democratic politicians address this issue, because if we do not, we leave the field clear for unpleasant, racist extremist parties. That would be the worst of all worlds.
I agree particularly with the hon. Lady's points about the appalling inadequacy of the statistics on which public policy in this area should be based. She has clearly researched this area well, but I assure her that after two years of asking Home Office Ministers about statistics, facts and figures that I cannot believe that they do not know, I have a file in my office, which I am happy to share with her, full of answers containing phrases such as "this information is not collected centrally" and "this information can be collected only at disproportionate cost." A lot of that information concerns people whom the Government have locked up, such as foreign prisoners, and whether they have been moved to immigration detention centres, as well as aspects of the asylum system. I am frequently torn between concluding that the Government really do not know those figures, which is appalling, or that they do know and are not telling me, which is equally appalling. Neither conclusion is very palatable for Parliament or for confidence in the competence of the immigration system.
On the issue of figures, I have a confession to make. When I came down from Cambridge, my first job was as a graduate trainee with the Home Office, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Office keeps millions of files full of figures. I would regard with a certain amount of scepticism any reply saying that a figure cannot be provided because of disproportionate cost.
I thought that he had finished.
I have had exactly the same problem, but I have also had the enhanced problem of receiving contradictory answers from the Home Office—some saying that it does not have the figures, and some saying that it has the figures but then giving the wrong ones. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Home Office give completely different figures on convictions for trafficking offenders in this country? Therefore, even when we get figures, they are not the same or right. That is even more confusing.
I have some sympathy for the Minister, because there is a case for saying that in a system of controlled immigration we need to have the power to detain people at some point, and may need to detain families. As did other hon. Members, I visited Yarl's Wood, and, like any normal, civilised human being, I came away profoundly uneasy at the sight of young children behind bars, of doors being clanged shut and of jailers—that is what they are—with huge bunches of keys, yet behind those doors were children playing happily.
There is something about that situation that would give rise to a huge sense of unease in any civilised person. That is why many hon. Members rightly raised the prospect of alternatives. Many mentioned the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which stated in its 1999 guidelines that detention should only be resorted to for a minimal period in cases of necessity. It also made a point that was made earlier about the UK Borders Act 2007. I moved amendments to the Bill, which, it should be said, were supported by Liberal Democrat Members, that would have applied the conditions of the Children Act 2004 to the Bill, but the Government rejected them partly for the reasons that were set out by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, and partly because they said that such conditions would render impossible the proper work of immigration officers. We doubted that on the grounds that the same duty is already applied to police officers who clearly have to make positive and occasionally coercive interventions against children. As it does not stop them doing their job, I was not convinced by the Government's arguments.
Nevertheless, even the UNHCR accepts that detention is needed in some circumstances. There are two central questions for the Minister to answer. Are we detaining as few children as possible for as short a time as possible, and are there alternatives to detention that would be equally effective?
The first question, which involves delays, is a long-standing problem of the whole asylum and, indeed, wider immigration system. Delay is still endemic. Asylum and immigration tribunals are overwhelmed because cases are not handled in the most efficient manner possible. Some of the victims of delay and incompetence are children, who are held in detention for far longer than I suspect even Ministers would wish to be the case.
I, too, have asked many parliamentary questions about Yarl's Wood. I was told that few children are held there for more than 28 days, but I doubted that response. Some of the evidence that has been produced today suggests that my scepticism was justified. It is clear that delays happen. They are part of a wider systemic problem. As was said earlier, Ministers talk tough but act ineffectually in this area.
The second big question is around potential options or proper alternatives to detention, which were discussed by the all-party group on refugees. I would like the Minister to deal particularly with two of the options that it mentioned. The Swedish option has already been discussed. Another option is electronic monitoring and tagging.
The UNHCR report on alternative detention notes that the 2001 Home Office evaluation of tagging in the criminal justice field stated that there was a 90 per cent. compliance rate among criminals. I am aware of recent research that is less positive about tagging, but I would be grateful if the Minister were to address it as a possible option. The point has been made that, of all the people who may be detained because of asylum and immigration matters, families are probably the least likely to abscond. Therefore, would tagging be effective?
The other alternative that I would draw to the Minister's attention is the work in Melbourne, Australia, of the Hotham Mission. I am sure that she is familiar with it, as everyone who deals with this area has been told that it works extremely well. It seeks to ensure a sound basis for improved welfare and to establish a safe environment for those who are the equivalents of those detained in this country. It houses 120 asylum seekers in 38 properties, provides support and runs a befriending programme.
Clearly, outcomes are important. The point about the Hotham Mission is that, of the people who had gone through the project, 43 per cent. received immigration status, 57 per cent. had their claims refused and left the country, and 0 per cent. absconded. That is a spectacular figure for this difficult area. If there is a project somewhere in the world in which 0 per cent. of people end up absconding, we should be looking hard at it.
Regardless of the wider immigration crisis, which shows no sign of improving, it ought to be easier to cope with the asylum system than it was a few years ago, as the numbers have come down—thankfully, largely because of the present absence of Balkan conflicts. I hope that the Government's refusal to insert a duty of care for children into the 2007 Act is not symbolic of their general attitude. As I said, I have some sympathy with the Minister, but I still need convincing that the Government are being either efficient or humane in their treatment of children in immigration detention.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour, Ms Abbott, on securing this debate on this important subject. I believe we all agree that her contribution was thoughtful, thoroughly researched and, as usual on this issue, passionate. She has a strong track record on immigration issues in her half of Hackney and here in the House.
I am heartened that there seems to be consensus in the Chamber that this country needs a firm, fair and swift immigration process and policy. Mr. Browne asked whether the Government believe that we should have a strong immigration policy. Yes, we do, and that is one reason why we are unveiling changes. We are 100 or so days away from the new points-based system that will be launched in February, which will mean that only those whom we want to come to this country and contribute to it will be able to do so.
However, such a system will require enforcement. When I was first elected as a councillor in 1994 and first came across the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I certainly did not think that I would stand here one day as part of a Government who have to make tough decisions about detention, including detention of children. It is not something that we aim to do but something that we have to do as part of the immigration process.
I shall outline some of the things that the Government are doing to try to reduce the number of children in detention, and measures that we have taken to improve their welfare. I shall also do my best in the time available to answer the many points raised, particularly by my hon. Friend, but by others as well.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration takes the matter seriously. Indeed, when he was putting together the UK Borders Bill and taking it through Parliament, he listened closely to what representatives of refugee and children's organisations said was needed to ensure that children in detention received greater support and care. For two years now we have had in the Border and Immigration Agency—formerly the immigration and nationality directorate—a children's champion. In June this year, my hon. Friend unveiled the children's code. If I have time, I shall go into it, but, as it has been published, I may have to skip over it more quickly than I would like.
If the Government are concerned about how children are treated in immigration detention, why do they not simply extend the provisions of the relevant children's legislation to children in detention? Surely that would be the easiest way. As has been pointed out, those provisions do not hamper the job of the police, so why should they hamper immigration officers?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I hope that I will be able to answer some of those questions as I go through the matters that have been raised. The Home Office has attempted to ensure that the Border and Immigration Agency is much more focused on the welfare not just of children but, generally, of all the people for whom it is responsible. We have made some progress.
We are considering alternatives. I highlight particularly the Clannebor project in Yorkshire, where specialists work closely with families. Case conferences include the parents of the children in discussions about options for their going home voluntarily. We will be starting a similar pilot in Kent at the end of this year. The pilots take account of the Australian model to which Damian Green referred, and we hope that they will lead to solutions and a reduction in the number of children in detention.
It is worth highlighting that children are in detention because their parents are at risk of absconding, or are on the point of removal. The parents have the opportunity of leaving voluntarily so that their children would not have to be in detention.
I seek the Minister's assurance that she is not saying that children are being detained because of the faults, crimes or suspected criminal activities of their parents.
I am happy to clarify that. The limited circumstances in which children may be detained under immigration legislation powers are when they are part of a family group for which detention is considered necessary. Occasionally and exceptionally, unaccompanied children may be detained, perhaps overnight, when there is no other alternative for their care, perhaps because social services could not be contacted. That would happen only in extremis, and for their safety. The general principle, as I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates, is that detention is used only when necessary, and that is especially true for families with children.
The detention of families with children is, naturally, regrettable. No one wants that to happen, and the Government do not detain such families lightly. Such detention is emotive, but it happens and will continue to happen when those who have no right of stay in this country will not leave voluntarily. That is the point about parental responsibility. We would prefer families that have no lawful basis for staying in our country to accept that fact and leave voluntarily but, sadly, they do not.
My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of vexatious judicial reviews, and it is worth noting that there are about 80 judicial reviews a month of people in detention, not all of them with children, but the Government have never lost a case on the policy of having children in detention. Regrettably, that often delays a family's departure and means that children are in detention longer.
The Minister must share my concern about the quality of much legal representation, particularly in the initial stage of immigration. Does she believe that some cases have poor representation throughout, and that cases that could have been successful are often lost because of that representation? Should that not be looked at?
My hon. Friend raises an important point that I identified early on as a constituency MP. The quality of advice that people receive, not only on immigration but on other issues, is variable. I hope that the changes in legal aid support and the quality controls that the Government are trying to establish will also help in the immigration area. He is right to identify that better advice and support can help in a number of ways, not least to ensure that families are held in detention no longer than necessary.
Although families may be detained under the same criteria as individuals—while identity or claims are established, because there is a risk of absconding, as part of a fast-track asylum process, or to effect removal—it is not usual for them to be detained for more than a few days at a time, and they are accommodated in dedicated family rooms—[Interruption.].
Mr. Steen asked whether it is possible to visit detention centres, and has heard that other hon. Members have done so. The Government are always happy to facilitate hon. Members to make such visits.
Detention of families is kept to a minimum, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington asked about the number of children detained after 28 days, and particularly about ministerial involvement. I will look into that further, and write to her or perhaps ask the Minister for Borders and Immigration to take up the matter. She made a fair point.
That brings me to the general issue of figures. We know how many children are in our detention estate at any one time, but that changes daily, which is often a reason for confusion because figures change as people are removed from the country. I acknowledge that there is still room for improvement in the published statistics, and emphasise that the Government are keen to be as open and transparent as possible.
We have introduced a number of measures better to identify, locate and refer children who are not in the estate, to which the hon. Member for Totnes referred. We are working on that, but children not in the estate are ultimately the responsibility of local authorities. I remember the issue from 1994 when I was first elected to a London borough council and became responsible for social services. It is worrying, and a balance must be struck between keeping children safe but not locking them up when in care, and ensuring that they have relevant support. I emphasise that since 2000, when I was a councillor, the Government have set up a network of authorities to provide better support because of the pressure to ensure that local authorities develop a reservoir of expertise.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to guardian ad litem, but children in detention are with their parents, and it is worth remembering that parents have ultimate responsibility for their children. It is not the Government's intention to separate children from their parents, and that is why, sadly, children go into detention more often than we like.
We are worried about children who go missing from care, and we are working on that with other Departments. It is not easy to solve the problem, but the introduction of identity cards, locking a child's identity clearly to themselves, will help, particularly where trafficking is concerned. I see informal adoptions in my constituency, and it is difficult to know where all the children have come from. Identity cards will be a major step, and I look forward to the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party as that matter progresses.
My hon. Friend was critical of the Government. She rightly highlighted that these children are exposed and vulnerable, but emphasised that they are with their parents. They are not taken away from their parents, and it is worth remembering that. The number of children detained at the longer end of the scale—for up to three months—has fallen, and we do not want it to be so high, which is why we have introduced the pilots. I will write to her with more details if she wants me to as time is short.
Every child in the system will have a single case owner so that families and individuals claiming asylum will have better support to progress their case more quickly. Delay is one of the main reasons for children being held.
I want to touch on medical treatment, which was raised by my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. Children have access to GP-level services with ready access to secondary and tertiary health care services in the community. All removal centre health care providers are in the process of registering with the Healthcare Commission, and will provide fuller oversight and the sort of accountability that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington rightly raised. That is an essential part of the system.
Children in detention are subject to the Children Act 2004, which the courts have said must apply, subject to practical constraints that inevitably arise from the fact of detention. For example, two social workers from Bedfordshire work full time at Yarl's Wood to ensure that the Act is adhered to. We address psychological and health needs by providing an independent social work and health assessment for children detained with their families, as well as ensuring that everyone has access to GP screening, if they want that, in the first 24 hours.
I shall not have time to go through all the issues at Yarl's Wood, but the barred gate has been removed, and a normal door has been installed, which addresses one of the points raised. Changes have been made to ensure that children at Yarl's Wood receive a better service, but I am keen to continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend and to keep her appraised of that progress.
In summary, we have a central dilemma. Some people seeking asylum must be removed because they will not leave voluntarily. We do not want children to be detained, but should we separate them from their parents? I do not believe that children should be released into local authority care and separated from their parents. Our option is slightly better, but our main aim is to reduce the number of children in detention through the pilots that I outlined, and we use tagging when that is appropriate. I hope that those measures will reduce the number of children detained unnecessarily.