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[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair] — Alternatives to Child Detention

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 17th June 2010.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Goodwill.)

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration 2:30 pm, 17th June 2010

I am delighted to have the opportunity today to draw attention to the issue of children in immigration detention. The UK's policy of detaining children with families in order to effect their removal from the UK is an area of long-standing concern for many organisations that take an interest in immigration and asylum, and for organisations that work on behalf of children. Those concerns are significant, and the Government have, very early on, set out their commitment to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. We want to replace the current system with something that ensures that families with no right to be in this country return in a more dignified manner.

To help bring that about, the UK Border Agency is leading a comprehensive review of present practice on the detention of children. It will look at the actual levels and at how to prevent such detention by improving the current voluntary return process. The review will also consider good practice in other countries, and will look at how a new family removals process can be established that protects the welfare of children and ensures the return of those with no right to remain in the UK. It will come as no surprise to you or to the Chamber, Mr Weir, that in the current climate the review will also have to include value for money as part of its remit.

The review has already begun and its phase of collecting views and submissions will run until 1 July. It will take in the views of a wide range of partners, experts and organisations that represent the interests of children to create viable long-term solutions. Earlier this week, I went to Glasgow to discuss the matter with many voluntary groups. They made extremely useful inputs to the review, so we will be repeating those meetings in all regions and in other countries of the UK over the next few weeks.

The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund is helping the review by co-chairing a working group made up of a range of non-governmental organisations, and I am grateful to the fund for agreeing to do that. We are seeking to identify how the UK Border Agency can fulfil its role while taking the right account of children's safety and welfare. We are carrying out the review as fast as humanly possible, so that the detention of children for immigration purposes can end and a practical alternative be put in its place.

I should emphasise that the UK Border Agency is fully determined to replace the current system with something more humane, without compromising on the removal of people who have no right to remain in the UK. We are talking about alternatives to detention and not about ending removals. Until the review is completed, current policies will remain in place, with one exception. As Members will know, the detention of children overnight at Dungavel immigration removal centre in Scotland has been ended as a precursor to such a practice ending across the UK. Currently, a very small number of children-fewer than five-are being held in immigration detention, but before we close Yarl's Wood for the detention of families we need to find effective alternatives.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

I will of course give way to the newly elected Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I thank the Minister very much for letting me intervene. I welcome this review, which is very much in keeping with the report the Select Committee produced last November. One of the recommendations was for the then Government-clearly, it is now for the new Government-to look at the role of local authorities. Will he confirm that local authorities will be consulted? The Committee was concerned that councils were sometimes not aware of children in their jurisdiction, and that that led to some children absconding and councils simply not being aware that they had gone.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I take the opportunity formally to congratulate him on his election-his reappointment, rather-as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I can do so with a due degree of objectivity because I was not allowed to vote in the election, so he can neither thank nor blame me. I am sure we will have many constructive exchanges in the coming years.

To address the right hon. Gentleman's point, the simple answer is yes. I mentioned earlier that I had had a meeting in Glasgow at which the city council played a significant, helpful and constructive role. The purpose of the consultation is for it to be as widespread as possible. As he said, local authorities will have statutory responsibilities for such children and will therefore have views about how best we can and should proceed, so I will very much welcome their input into proceedings.

The challenge is to develop a new approach to family removals that remains cost-effective and delivers the return of those who have no right to remain in the UK. I hope I will not be constraining the review if I identify some of the factors involved; indeed, I hope this will help those who wish to contribute. It is already clear from the initial stages of the review that there is not a single, simple remedy: it is not just about ending detention at the stroke of a pen. There may have to be-I think there will have to be-a number of changes at different points in the system, each contributing to the overall aim. Clearly, there is a need to achieve faster and better decision making on family asylum cases; we are already taking forward work on that. We are told there is a need for greater confidence in the initial decision that is made in asylum cases. I take on board that message; indeed, I may even have transmitted that message to Government in the past.

In a recent report, the UK Border Agency's independent chief inspector, John Vine, commented favourably on the commitment to quality, and the UK is felt by many countries to have good systems in this regard. Members may know that in 2007, the provision of early legal advice was piloted in Solihull, in the west midlands, to test whether collaboration between the legal representative and the UK Border Agency decision-maker led to better information at the initial decision-making stage, so that better quality decisions could be reached. The findings were unclear, so we are working with the Legal Services Commission and key asylum partners to test those principles across an entire region of the UK Border Agency. It is called the early legal advice project, and it is an example of collaborative working and trying new things that I hope will characterise this area of alternatives to detention for families.

Another thing to consider is the need for better contact management and more active discussion of a family's options if their claim is rejected and their right to appeal a decision has been exhausted. Discussions with a family might need to be backed up by improved support from NGOs, partners and other workers. The options open to families at present include some very generous assisted return packages, but the take-up rate for families is low compared with that for single asylum seekers. There is, therefore, a need for better marketing of those assisted return offers. Marketing may sound like an odd word in this context, but I use it because we should not be forcing the take-up of such offers. Better explanation and promotion of the offers is clearly needed; they are real offers to provide help and assistance when all the other options have been exhausted. To illustrate one apparently small but important point, the assistance includes help with excess baggage so that families can take with them belongings purchased in the UK. They would not be returning home empty-handed, and would have more to show for their migration journey and for their time in the UK.

I think that everyone involved would also like to see a clearer and more evenly managed process after applications and claims to remain have been turned down. The starting point-and what I hope will become the standard-would be a much more clearly identifiable transition from a voluntary departure to an enforcement approach that is shaped by the family's own approach to their situation. The UK Border Agency would therefore set removal directions while the family is in the community, giving the family time to submit further representations and to apply for a judicial review if they wish to do so, as well as giving them time to make plans for their return. The arrangements would place a greater emphasis on self check-in or escorting to the airport. That approach, which already exists but possibly in a less clear way than it ought to, gives families every chance to comply with the need to return home without enforcement action. Making it much clearer to families-and their helpers-where they stand at this stage of the process seems to me to be necessary.

Other changes to processes may be called for, but inevitably some families who have no justification to remain in the UK will always refuse to leave voluntarily, despite all the encouragement we give them to do so. A changed approach should, and I hope would, minimise the number of those families, but there will remain difficult cases where solutions have to be found and where enforced removals are likely to continue. That approach could involve separating different members of a family and reuniting them before departure, so that some family members stay in the accommodation they are used to. However, I recognise that that approach would be hugely contentious and has its own practical difficulties. Therefore, in some cases we may still have to have recourse to holding families for a short period before removal-where keeping the family together is seen as being in the best interests of the children, which of course must be the paramount concern.

I hope it will not come to that. The Government and the UK Border Agency would much prefer that families who do not require humanitarian protection or refugee protection return to their home countries voluntarily. That is a responsible approach in a world where the number of people who choose to live in another country, for a variety of reasons, is continually expanding. Not everyone's journey will be a success in economic terms; not everyone's journey will be lawful. We believe that the Government should respond in a responsible, fair, dignified and humane way to this reality.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I thank the Minister for giving way to me for a second time. Will he comment on the report in The Guardian today that the Government are considering a reintegration centre-basically, a detention centre-of some kind in Afghanistan for families who are due to be removed from this country? Is that report correct, or wrong?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

I would always hesitate to describe a report in The Guardian as being completely accurate. The proposed centre in Afghanistan is not particularly a British Government project; indeed, the previous Government raised this idea with other European Governments and with international agencies. The proposed centre's purpose is, effectively, to have a retraining centre-a re-entry centre-in Afghanistan, which the right hon. Gentleman will know is the source of many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this country, so that there is something for those children to go back to that will enable them to lead a better life in Afghanistan. I suspect he agrees with me that it would be much better for those young men to have a decent life and some hope in life in their own country. If they can have those things, that will stop many of them making dangerous-in some cases, sadly, fatal-journeys halfway across the world to try to reach Britain or other European countries.

So the basis of the report in The Guardian, for all that I said in my initial response to the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, is true, but it is being presented in a luridly and unfairly hostile light. The centre is an effort to help people. I suspect that Meg Hillier, the Opposition spokesperson, will agree with that, because she was in government when the then Government originally suggested this process. It is a constructive and creative response to the problem of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and to present it in any other light is straightforwardly unfair. It is a constructive idea and I hope it comes to fruition. The tender for the operation is being examined, and we hope to make an announcement in the next few months about what will happen next.

This is a real, worldwide problem and as I was saying, we believe that the Government should respond in a responsible, fair, dignified and humane way to the reality of what is happening around the world today. The review into ending the immigration detention of children is an important part of that. Obviously, we will not take any firm decisions until the review has completed its work and we have taken into account the views that are put to us. I hope that during this debate, more ideas will be put forward that the Government can feed into the review, which may therefore give us what we all want to see: a fairer and more humane system that ends the system of detaining children for immigration purposes in this country.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee 2:45 pm, 17th June 2010

I begin by congratulating Damian Green on his appointment as Minister for Immigration. I attended many debates with him in his Opposition capacity, but he has finally made it and now has the opportunity to put into practice all the good proposals for which he argued so strongly as the Opposition spokesperson.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Meg Hillier for all the work that she did as an Immigration Minister in the last Government. She was always very firm in defence of the Government's policy, but she was also very willing to listen to Members of this House when they raised matters of concern with her. I am glad that she has retained her position as the Labour party's spokesperson on immigration in opposition, because of course she knows everything-where all the bodies have been buried, figuratively speaking.

I welcome most warmly the Government's decision to conduct a review of the whole question of the detention of children in the immigration system. It may well be that during the general election campaign, the Minister read the reports of the Home Affairs Committee. If so, he will have seen our report published on 24 November 2009, "The Detention of Children in the Immigration System". In a sense, he has prefaced that report in the comments that he has made today. He has also rehearsed some of the arguments that are used for keeping children in detention, while rejecting those arguments. Of course, one cannot prejudge the outcome of a review, but I would be most surprised if the Government, having begun a review on this very important subject, came to the conclusion that everything was okay as far as the detention of children in the immigration system was concerned.

Nearly 1,000 children a year are detained in the UKBA's immigration detention centres. On average, such children spend more than a fortnight-15.58 days-in detention, but detention for up to 61 days is not uncommon. On 30 June 2009-the last date for which the Home Affairs Committee had information on children in detention-10 of the 35 children in detention at that time had been held for between 29 and 61 days. The Committee noted that the cost of keeping a person in detention was £130 a day; therefore, keeping a family of four in detention for between four and eight weeks costs more than £20,000.

During our very brief inquiry into this area, Members of the Committee visited Yarl's Wood. We felt that there must be an alternative that can be used to deal with the Government's proper function, which is to ensure that those who have lost their immigration cases and who have not been granted leave to remain in this country, either as asylum seekers or in any other context, are removed. I think that all of us, on both sides of the House, accept that there cannot be an indefinite right for people to stay here after all the legal processes have been exhausted. What we must find is a humane way to deal with families, particularly children, who are kept in detention before their removal.

We went to Yarl's Wood after hearing serious allegations about its operation, and what we found was a much more humane regime. Ultimately, of course, Yarl's Wood remains a prison; one cannot walk in and out without being checked through. When the Select Committee arrived, we produced all our identification and were put through those checks. I am not sure whether the Minister has had an opportunity to visit since taking up his office; I am sure that the shadow Minister visited at some stage. Some the reports of conditions in Yarl's Wood were lurid, and it may well have been like that in the past, but certainly nothing like that was obvious to us when we visited. The staff made an effort to accommodate families and children. We saw an impressive nursery school that had been built. It did not deal with anyone over the age of 10; it dealt with young children.

Unfortunately, our visit was somewhat marred by the Home Office officials' terrible anxiety about the Select Committee visit. They tried hard to keep us away from the people being detained there, which was totally unnecessary. The point of Members of Parliament visiting an institution such as Yarl's Wood is to ensure that we speak to the people there about their circumstances. What we found was that people were more anxious about the progress of their immigration case than about any of the ways and means by which they were detained I hope that, even before the review is continued, the Minister will take on board the fact that people in detention need access to proper and appropriate legal and immigration advice. I left the detention centre with about five or six cases, which I immediately passed on to the relevant constituency MPs.

It was depressing to see children being kept in such circumstances. Of course the Serco staff did their best to ensure that they were kept happy-there was a little shop, for example. We talked to a couple of the kids about what it was like being there. Though it is acceptable for a very short period, it is still a prison, it is still detention and their freedom is still restricted. The review is therefore timely and important, and I hope that it will be concluded as quickly as possible. As I missed the first few words of the Minister's opening remarks, I am not sure whether he has a timetable. The Government are undertaking a lot of reviews, and although I do not hold that against them-any new Government want to review everything that happened before-we need timetables. Under the current system, however, it is important that people should be clear where they stand as far as their future is concerned.

I raised with the Minister the question of the local authorities' involvement. We took evidence from the London borough of Hillingdon, because it contains Harmondsworth centre and Heathrow airport-those put into detention after coming off a plane and those about to be removed are held in close proximity to airports. One of the Select Committee's recommendations was that the Government's future building programmes should take proximity to airports into consideration. We were concerned to find that the local authority did not seem to know how many children were being detained and that it was not notified when children left detention. That is why we recommended that local authorities should be informed every seven days of how many children are being detained in their area. That would be quite a simple process for UKBA, so it is surprising that those facts and figures are not available. I hope that, in the interim-before the review is published-we will look at what we can do to get that information to local authorities. That must be easy for UKBA to do, so I hope that it will be done.

I do not want to detain the House long, given that the Government seem to be doing everything that the Select Committee asked them to do. My final point is a general one to which I will keep returning as long as I occupy the Chair of the Select Committee. I want to be fair to this Government as I was fair to the last one, and the former Minister will remember that on every occasion when we discussed immigration, I raised the same issue: the state of the backlog in the administration of the Home Office.

I see that Gavin Barwell is here today. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should move the Home Office away from Croydon, as I am sure that a lot of his constituents work there and that Lunar house and all those other fine buildings contribute greatly to Croydon's economy. However, it is not acceptable for us to go on as though the backlog will only be here until next year. The Select Committee is due a letter from Lin Homer setting out the state of the backlog, and of course progress has been made in the past 13 years, but I asked the then Minister for Borders and Immigration, my hon. Friend Mr Woolas, whether he would like to be the first Immigration Minister in history to leave office having cleared the backlog. For as long as I have been a Member of Parliament-23 years now-there has always been a backlog. When I was first elected, there were sacks of unopened letters in Lunar house, simply because the volume of correspondence was so great.

I know that the Minister has written to right hon. and hon. Members about how we deal with constituency cases. Looking around the Chamber, I think that all of us here have a smattering of immigration cases, some more than others, and the shadow Minister is probably the biggest consumer of her former portfolio than anyone else here. It is all very well to tell Members to write to officials at Croydon and to come to Ministers only as a last resort, but we all get the same letters back, drafted by the same person. Miss Homer, as director general and chief executive, takes ultimate responsibility-this is not a personal issue; it is just business, as they said in "The Godfather"-but the fact is that all the letters are the same. We do not expect the Minister to draft his own letters, but we get the same information whether we write to Miss Homer or to him. UKBA keeps telling us that we must wait until next year for the backlog to be cleared.

That is the problem for children in detention. If only the system actually worked and gave us quicker results, even if those results did not please people and the cases still went through judicial review. I declare an interest: my wife is an immigration lawyer and I worked in a law centre before I was elected, and the process does, of course, make work for lawyers. People apply for judicial review only if they have no other option, but at present, they apply for judicial review at the end of a three-year process. If we had dealt with their cases more quickly, some asylum seekers would not have had their children. Some of the children in detention are there because their parents' cases have taken so long to be concluded.

In the spirit of a new Government with a fresh approach, I say that eliminating the backlog and dealing with immigration cases quickly is the best way to solve the problems of needing to build more detention centres and to keep children in detention. I know what the Minister will say: "You were in office for 13 years. Why hasn't this been solved?" Believe me, I and others have been asking Governments for the past 20 years to do something about it.

Administrative delays have become an essential part of immigration policy, which means that people in this country are working illegally because they are waiting for their cases to be concluded. People come to me every week-tomorrow I will see another 50, and on average I deal with 60 immigration cases a week-who are desperate to work but cannot because they are waiting for UKBA to deal with their cases. Some cases take between six and seven years to be concluded. Dealing with those issues must go hand in hand with the Government review.

The Minister's biggest battle will be against the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and ultimately the Chancellor, but the Home Affairs Committee will be on his side arguing, as it has done in the past, his case for more resources for UKBA and to clear the backlog. UKBA is full of good and decent people, but the system needs changing. We have constantly asked for greater expenditure but, obviously, no Minister for Immigration has ever said in a debate, whether in Westminster Hall or the main Chamber, "Please can we have more money?" That would breach the convention of Government. The Select Committee will say that for him.

Even in the current climate, providing resources will save the Government millions and millions of pounds spent every year on detaining people, including families and children, and forcibly removing those who have been here for seven or eight years. Let us not get into that situation. Let us deal with cases as quickly and efficiently as possible so that we do not have to detain or lock up children any more. We can allow people their chance of a fair hearing before the courts and eventually before the Minister, and then the results that the Government put forward must be accepted.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Conservative, Croydon Central 3:01 pm, 17th June 2010

Like Keith Vaz, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his appointment. I have known him for some time and, given the values that I know he has, I think that he will balance the need to reform our asylum system, to ensure that people who do not have a right to be in the country return home, with compassion for those who come here seeking sanctuary. It is a great privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East. He referred to his work in the previous Parliament as Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and its report on the issue before us today.

Immigration and asylum, which are too often conjoined, are important in my constituency. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the UK Border Agency in Croydon Central; its significant presence has a number of effects on my constituency. First, a large number of people are going through either the immigration or the asylum process, which has been the dominant issue in my casework in the four or five weeks I have been an MP. Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman implied, a significant number of UKBA employees are my constituents, so there are some interesting letters from people about their experience of working in the system and how it might be improved. On another occasion, I might share some of those views with my hon. Friend the Minister.

Thirdly, there is a significant impact on our local authority, and the right hon. Gentleman talked about the issues. The London borough of Croydon, as a social services authority, has responsibility for more than 700 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That compares with about 300 children from Croydon, so its social services role is very different from that of many other local authorities. Finally, immigration and asylum is a big issue with residents. Croydon has seen significant demographic change over the past 10 or 20 years. I am pleased to say that in most parts of my constituency, and most parts of the town, relations between different communities are good. However, in a few areas there has been significant activity from the British National party. I am pleased that it did not make the predicted breakthrough at the recent local elections.

Immigration and asylum was also a significant issue in the general election campaign. I suspect that other right hon. and hon. Members here today were contacted by Citizens for Sanctuary during the general election and asked to sign the sanctuary pledge. It gave me far and away my most uncomfortable moment during the campaign because I strongly feel that it is inappropriate to detain children, but, given that the party manifesto did not contain a specific commitment to end the practice, I felt that it was inappropriate for me to make a pledge without confidence that it could be delivered. The issue is important to me personally and to my constituency. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has visited Yarl's Wood on several occasions and has spoken publicly about how distressing he found seeing children who are effectively behind bars.

The evidence in favour of changing the approach of the previous Government has been mounting for some time. The first UK study of its kind on the subject was published on 15 October last year in "Child Abuse & Neglect: the International Journal". A team of doctors examined 24 children detained at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre. They found that the majority were experiencing mental and physical health difficulties related to being in detention. The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics and Child Health, of General Practitioners and of Psychiatrists, and the UK Faculty of Public Health produced a long and detailed report. Dr Philip Collins, a forensic adolescent psychiatrist representing the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

"The harsh reality about this country's immigration policy is that we are significantly damaging the mental health of many of the children and young people who end up-through no fault of their own-being detained in a prison-like environment by the UK Border Agency. The evidence is clear: this policy directly harms the mental health of children and young people. That is why the Royal College of Psychiatrists calls on the UK Government to end this practice without delay."

On 17 February this year, we had the report of Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children's Commissioner for England:

"Children continue to report that they find the process of arrest and transportation distressing. Increasingly, children are separated from parents when transported to the centre. Most are not told what will happen to their belongings and pets left behind and many have difficulty contacting friends."

While acknowledging that health care standards improved, the report states that significant areas require attention, saying that

"a mother informed the nurse at 11.20 pm that her five year old child had fallen earlier in the playground. The child could not lift her arm and was not seen by the GP until 2.05pm the next day and went to A&E at 7.02 pm," the next evening, and was found to have a fracture.

There is also the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons, which, to be fair to the previous Government, noted that conditions, services and support for children, including a new school and better health care, have improved:

"However, given that the fact of detention adversely affected children's welfare, inspectors were concerned that their detention did not appear to be exceptional or necessary, given that half the families detained were later released under temporary admission."

As I say, the evidence that the policy the previous Government pursued was wrong has been mounting for some time. It must surely be possible to balance the need to remove those with no right to be in this country with the need to protect the welfare of children. I was glad to see in the coalition agreement a commitment to end the detention of children, which takes on the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations and, arguably, goes a little further. My hon. Friend the Minister has announced that the review is under way. I hope that Meg Hillier will confirm that the official Opposition will reconsider their approach.

I have a few questions for my hon. Friend before I close. The right hon. Member for Leicester East touched on the first: how long will the review take? I understand that while it is being carried out, some detention will continue but a time scale would be helpful. In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend ran through the options that will be considered as part of the review; one was potentially separating families so some family members could remain in their home. I was pleased to hear that he recognised that that would be contentious. If we move from detaining children to breaking up families, it could be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire. Will the Minister tell us more about the pilot scheme looking at possibilities away from detention that UKBA has been running in Glasgow? The initial results showed that there had been some success, with people voluntarily choosing to return to their country of origin.

Will my hon. Friend tell us a little about the case management approach that a number of other countries have adopted in recent years to end the practice of detention? He talked a little about that in his opening remarks, but I understand that the policy that has been pursued in Sweden, for example, has reached the point where more than three quarters of families now voluntarily agree to return to their place of origin.

In conclusion, I thank you, Mr Weir, for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I was extremely gratified to see that the commitment to act on this issue was in the coalition agreement. I am also gratified to see that the Minister has already acted to set up a review, and I look forward to hearing how he intends to take it forward.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 3:10 pm, 17th June 2010

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The issue is important not only because of the numbers of children who are detained, but, sadly, because it symbolises how far the Labour Government had gone, in some aspects, from the ideals that motivate many millions of the party's supporters.

When I raised the issue on the Floor of the House about two years ago, I was one of the first people to do so. I have visited Oakington detention centre and Yarl's Wood, and I have had two debates on the Floor of the House about children in detention. As hon. Members will have heard earlier, and as they will certainly have read in the documentation, no reputable organisation defends this practice, which almost certainly puts us in breach of the European convention on human rights. All reputable organisations-whether it is United Nations organisations in this country, Save the Children, the Refugee Council or Liberty-are united in opposition to this practice.

The practice of detaining children is wrong in principle. What are we doing detaining children in custody when they have committed no crime? Hon. Members might be surprised to know that when I discuss the issue with friends and colleagues in foreign legislatures-even those in third-world countries-they are surprised that Britain, of all countries, detains children indefinitely. When looking at these issues, we must always remember that the history of empire means that people look to Britain to set an example, but we are not setting one on this matter.

Detention was wrong in principle, and it was almost certainly in breach of a number of human rights conventions, but it was also wrong in practice. I know that because I have visited the detention centres. Ministers will tell us about the improvements, and they will tell us that everything is the parents' fault because they should have left when they were supposed to. However, when we go to the detention centres to meet the families and the children, particularly if we have children ourselves, it is brought home to us on a level that we cannot put down on paper-even in excellent reports such as those by the Home Affairs Committee-what it means to children to be detained and deprived of their liberty. However wonderful the facilities, the children cannot run outside as far as the eye can see. As far as they are concerned, they are behind four walls. They have almost certainly been brought into detention in traumatic circumstances, such as after a morning raid, and they find themselves locked up for reasons they can scarcely comprehend-and locked up, in their view, is what they are. Unlike my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, who will speak for the Opposition, I have actually visited the detention centres and the children. Detention is a restriction of children's liberty, and they face the trauma that that entails.

There are also issues about the conditions, some of which were dealt with by the Labour party when it was in government, but some of which were not. At Yarl's Wood, in particular, there is an inflammable atmosphere. We have just had riots, and there have been all sorts of problems. Most recently-earlier this year-women were on hunger strike. Part of that inflammable atmosphere has to do with the underlying tension about the fact that children are detained at Yarl's Wood.

Party colleagues will say that the parents chose not to go home at the first time of asking, so they are responsible for their children's being in custody. Whenever I raise the issue on the Floor of the House, I hear that it is not the Government's fault and that the parents are responsible, but where in the practice of justice and in the way in which this country is run are we in the business of punishing children for what their parents have done?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

There is another issue, which I raised in my speech. Why do people have to wait so long for their cases to be dealt with? Does my hon. Friend agree that dealing with cases in a more timely fashion and clearing the Home Office backlog would help to make the system more humane? She is absolutely right about the detention of children, but the reason why we have so many cases is that they are not being dealt with quickly enough.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

My right hon. Friend has great experience as a constituency MP. He probably does more immigration casework than any constituency MP, and he has been doing it for 23 years. Added to that is his experience as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. He makes an excellent point: the delays help to create an intolerable situation for people trapped in the system.

I am one of the longest-serving Members of the House present today, and I remember when detention centres were introduced. The House was told that they would be used only for short periods while we fast-tracked cases and deported people. Had the House been told that children, in particular, would be in these centres for months-there have even been cases of children being in them for nearly a year-it might have taken a very different attitude. A system that was meant to be used for short periods of detention while people's cases were fast-tracked has turned into one-I have visited the detention centres myself-in which people and their children are held in limbo. That is one of the things that make this practice so unacceptable.

As I said, the detention of children is wrong in principle; it is wrong because it is an infringement of their liberty. It is also wrong because, in a way, we are making children and families suffer for the issues in our system, and the delays are very much part of that. We set a very poor example to other countries and other jurisdictions if we cannot construct a system in which it is not necessary to detain children.

The purpose of the detention centres, apart from expediting removals, was to act as a deterrent. There has been a strong feeling over the past 13 years that the grimmer and more exacting we made the regime for asylum seekers and immigrants, the less likely they were to come here. However, people must recognise that, for better or worse, the push-factors behind people migrating and seeking asylum are very great, and the idea that turning the screw one more time will see numbers drop has proved false.

We need to focus as never before on having an efficient and speedy system, because my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz and I have spent 23 years struggling with the delays. In the long run, we also have to deal with the circumstances in people's countries of origin that make them think, in their desperation, that they will chance their arm by coming to this country.

After 23 years of immigration and asylum casework, I would add that we also need to deal with some of the so-called immigration and legal advisers who prey on our constituents and give them false advice and false hope. Often, it is not the would-be immigrants or asylum seekers who put themselves on the path of collision with the authorities, but the advice they get from people who are feeding off them and making money out of them, even though they have little money to spend.

In the immediate term, we need to deal with the ongoing inefficiencies in the system and bear down on some of the lawyers and so-called immigration advisers. Although we are obviously very constrained, we also need, in the very long term, to create the right conditions in people's regions of origin so that it is not necessary for them to flee here. That is the way to deal with the system.

Successive bodies and individuals have tried to get past Governments to deal with this issue. It was a particular preoccupation of a previous Children's Commissioner and it is a preoccupation of the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, who did a comprehensive report on the issue two or three years ago. As I said, every reputable organisation that has looked at this has said that the detention of children is wrong in principle and detrimental to children in practice. Medical work has been done on the consequences of the stressful situation for children, and it is very alarming. I have said before, including to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, when she was a Minister: how can we, the politicians, agree to keep children in circumstances that would horrify us if they were proposed for our own children?

It must be wrong to punish children for the alleged infractions of their parents. There must be a better way than that. The way, of course, as Gavin Barwell said, is not to split families but to bear down on the aspects of the system-whether the advice that is given or the speed with which cases are dealt with-that lead to people being in such a plight. What has been happening is wrong. There must be a way forward that does not involve splitting up families.

I have raised the issue time and again in the House and in questions, and I have visited detention centres, not because there are votes in worrying about the children in those centres but because I felt that what was happening was wrong, and that there must be a better way. It gives me no pleasure to say that it has taken a new Government to take a fresh look at the question. I hope they will not let the tribulations of office and its practical difficulties deflect them from ending what has been this country's shame: the detention of innocent children in detention centres.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 3:21 pm, 17th June 2010

Thank you, Mr Weir, for calling me to speak for the first time in Westminster Hall. It is a great honour to follow Ms Abbott, who spoke as powerfully as ever on the issue in question. It was a great pleasure to hear her speak at the Liberty annual general meeting on Saturday; she spoke movingly about many issues, and I wish her the best of luck with her forthcoming selection process. I shall not say that I support her, as that might do her more damage than anything else.

I am delighted that the debate has been obtained, because the issue is very important. I have always felt that a good test of the underlying morals and values of a country is the way it treats people who cannot defend or look after themselves, and the most vulnerable people in society. That description applies to all sorts of groups, and child detainees are one of them. We fail the test incredibly badly in relation to them; we can talk another time about how well we do in other respects. It is a matter of great shame to this country that we treat people so badly.

The topic of the debate is alternatives to child detention. The main alternative that I can think of to detaining 1,000 children a year is not to detain them. That, above all, is what I want to say. We simply should not detain them. The suggestion that we should detain the family but not the children is at least as bad. We should not even consider something that tears families apart at what is often a difficult time for them. That leaves the question of what we can do with the children in the case in question, and before I discuss that I want to explain why I am concerned about the issue.

Cambridge has a great history as somewhere that is very multicultural and tolerant, with people from various backgrounds, and a number of people there have been involved in various ways with detainees. I might mention, in relation to the remarks of Gavin Barwell, that the Conservative candidate in Cambridge was one of the Conservatives who signed the sanctuary pledge; ours was one of very few constituencies where every candidate did so. I am delighted that we did, and I wish it had happened elsewhere.

We are also very near the Oakington detention centre, which has a sad and sorry history. Children are not the main focus there, but recently it hit the news because of the death of one gentleman in detention in April. I am currently dealing with a case of serious assault there. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington has been there to look around. I spoke to her earlier about my request to do so too: that visit was scheduled, but has now been delayed. I fear that my speaking here today means that it will be delayed further, but I look forward to the chance to see it.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

On that point-I know the hon. Gentleman was not here for some of the earlier speeches-when the Select Committee asked to make a visit it took a long time to get that sorted out. When we got there, I think 10 Home Office officials attended, and only about three from Serco. There was a total of about 15; the room was full. Is it the hon. Gentleman's wish, as it is my hope, that the new Government will perhaps let us in more often, if we ask?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

It is indeed a problem getting in; my predecessor, David Howarth, tried to get in and was told that it was not possible for him to do that. It is somewhat worrying if there are institutions in this country in a state such that MPs cannot be allowed in to have a look.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I urge the hon. Gentleman to be persistent. I had to be, but we cannot have MPs in effect being barred from going to such institutions. Otherwise, we are left to wonder what they are trying to hide.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Indeed; I plan to be persistent. I accept the fact that unexpected circumstances sometimes mean that things must be cancelled. One deferral is fine, but if the arrangement keeps being deferred I shall be more concerned, and shall certainly raise the matter here.

To move on to the issue of children, we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Croydon Central about the effects of detention on mental health; we have heard about its effects on physical health and overall well-being, and about the future that we are providing for the children in question. It is hard to see how any of that fits with the UK Border Agency's statutory duty under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and the way in which it is supposed to treat children, or with article 37 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which states that detention should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. It would be hard to say that that is being carried out.

Another issue is the advice and help that the children and their parents get. I had planned to speak for longer and to discuss legal aid for Refugee and Migrant Justice, but early-day motion 191 on that topic was discussed on the Floor of the House today, so I shall not take up time with it now; nevertheless, it is essential that we provide the right support to people.

The way in which we deal with age-disputed children is also a real issue. With very young children things are clear for all concerned. They are children, and there is no doubt. They should not be detained. We need to provide much more family-friendly and child-friendly solutions. There is a concern about children who claim to be, say, 17; it is hard to tell whether such a claim is honest. We need a clear, fair process to try to establish the age of those people. In many cases it will not be hard. We need a clear routine that appears fair and does not seem-as in so many cases that I have been made aware of-like arbitrary justice, with decisions being made semi-arbitrarily, based on various factors, about whether the truth is being told. It is hard on teenagers who are already in very difficult circumstances to tell them that there is no way for them to interact sensibly with the process.

The question was raised earlier whether we should punish children for the sins of their parents. I do not see seeking sanctuary in this country as a sin or something worthy of punishment. It is worthy of rapid decisions about whether people are genuine sanctuary seekers, who should be coming to this country-and we should open ourselves as we would hope other countries would, to support people in need-or whether there is something false about the story, in which case things are different. In any event, punishment is not the route. Trying to control the people coming to this country by being as nasty as possible to them while they are here is not worthy of this country. There are other issues that must be dealt with, and international development is clearly the right process for that, as has been mentioned.

The UK Border Agency needs to work faster. I am constantly coming across cases that have taken years to process, and that gives rise to questions about how fairly and rapidly the system works. The aim must be to reach a decision quickly and fairly about whether people are genuine sanctuary seekers, so that if they are not they go, and if they are they can stay. At the moment, it takes far too long. Competence is a serious issue in relation to the UKBA in several wider respects, which have even affected people who came to work for me in my former profession, from such places as the USA. There is something fundamentally wrong, in my experience, with the way the agency operates.

We need to end child detention as quickly as possible. I am delighted that that is in the coalition agreement. It is a fantastic aspect of the coalition that we can finally end such an awful thing. We owe the people of this country better than child detention, and I look forward to our fulfilling our aim in that respect.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:29 pm, 17th June 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir.

I have some questions for the Minister, and to help him respond fully it may help him if I go through them before I make any other comments, and pick up on hon. Members' points. As to Dungavel, what, currently, will happen if a family in Scotland are required to leave the country-to be deported? Where are they sent, and how is that dealt with?

The Minister spoke about local authorities, and working more closely with them. I wonder whether the Government are planning to work with all local authorities equally, or whether they will build on the existing model that applies to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It is a slightly different model, and involves specialist local authorities that are particularly adept at dealing with these challenging issues.

What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities to make them aware of the situation regarding children liable to be removed, and of how the process will work? I know that it is early days, but I wonder whether he could give some guidance, because I am sure that the Local Government Association and individual authorities will be keen to know how it will work practically.

I am also interested to know how the Government propose to work with community organisations. We hear a lot about the big society. Like many people, I am keen to know what it actually means. I shall touch on some of the work with community organisations that was under way while my party was in government, but I am keen to hear a bit about the Government's plans. Perhaps, if the Minister is unable to answer here and now, he could provide some information in writing in due course.

This debate is about alternatives to child detention. I have had the opportunity to speak to those who are responsible for the project in Glasgow. I do not know whether the Minister managed that on his visit to Glasgow this week, but I am pleased that he is going around the different nations of the UK to discuss the matter. What progress has there been on the Glasgow project? To date, has any family actually left voluntarily as a result of that very intense intervention, which I believe involves two social workers working with around four families at a time? I wonder whether there has yet been a success story, because, sadly, there had not been one as I left office, but I have great hopes that the project can deliver some results. It is still early days, but I would be keen to hear an update on it.

The Minister mentioned the assisted voluntary returns package but did not absolutely pledge that it will continue, although I did not hear him say that it would not. I would be keen to hear some clarification on the future of the package, particularly in the current financial situation. It is a reasonably generous package of up to £5,000 per individual, and I wonder whether the Government plan to keep it at that level, and whether the Minister has a hotline to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is his right hon. Friend these days, to ensure that that money will be there to enable the alternatives to progress. I welcome the fact that the Minister is cautious about the separation of families, and I shall touch on that in a moment.

An interesting issue in this area is the impact on human trafficking. Clearly, children are trafficked. If they are never detained, there is a risk that that could become a pull factor for those who have mal-intent towards children. In constructing the review and taking account of views, is there any particular oversight of that threat, so that as the review progresses and proposals come forward, it is considered, and there are not perverse outcomes which none of us in the House would want?

On that, would the Minister pledge to monitor the impact on children in what we might call private fostering? As the previous Minister, I was responsible for this area. There were occasions when adults were detained but the children would be elsewhere, and it could take some time to locate the children when the parents and family themselves had decided to separate. That lays open terrible potential risks to children in terms of child protection and safety. Again, if the review is well done and well constructed, the matter could possibly be dealt with, but there is a potential perverse outcome which the Government need to be aware of and plan against.

Has the Minister had any recent legal advice about section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 on the duty of care for children, as mentioned by Dr Huppert, and its impact on the review? There has been previous legal advice, but I wonder whether the Minister is seeking legal advice about the impact of that legislation.

There has been some discussion of the importance of legal advice, with which I certainly agree. I wonder whether any further action has been proposed, either as part of the review or separately, on improving legal advice, which has dogged all of us as constituency Members who deal with casework but also anyone in government who has to deal with these challenges. Does the Minister have any thoughts on that?

The current proposal is to continue some detention, but, according to the coalition agreement-I stand to be corrected if I have misunderstood it-there is an intent to hold a family with children for between 24 and 72 hours only. What would happen in the current situation if a family with children who are already in detention launch a judicial review at the 11th hour? Will the Minister ever continue to detain the family? Does he rule that out, or do the Government not currently have a definite position? I hope that because I have given him notice of questions, he will be able to answer them fully.

We heard some useful contributions from Members. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz has spoken many times on this subject. I should point out that the backlog has been a bugbear for us all as constituency MPs, and for anyone in the House who has any interest in the matter, but it has reduced. As a constituency MP and in my previous role, I have seen that and can testify to it.

I do, however, share a concern with my right hon. Friend about resources. Will progress go backwards now, given that there will be tight controls on and reductions in Government spending? Let us be honest: we are interested in this issue, but many people up and down the country would not see it as a priority. I wonder whether it is a priority of the current Government to make resources available to ensure that the backlog continues to go down, and that there is support for those going through the system so that they can get the right advice.

My right hon. Friend rightly highlighted the fact that the backlog does not help the situation regarding detention. Families who see other families staying for a long time because they have been caught up in the backlog are led to believe that there is not a real prospect of their leaving.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I do not want to prejudge my hon. Friend's memoirs detailing her period in government before they eventually come out, but is it the case that the Home Office did not ask for more resources, or was it just not given more resources? Was there a plea to the Treasury that if there were more resources, more could be done about the issue?

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I worked with two Home Secretaries who were robust in defending the Home Office's need for resources for several areas, but, as the Minister will find out in his new role, resources are always challenging in a Department such as the Home Office. There are many priorities, and every time resources are put into one area, there is a risk that another area will bubble up, as I believe he with his greater experience dealing with these matters in Parliament will know.

Resources were always an issue, but it was not as simple as that. Often, local authorities did not want cases decided as quickly as they could have been because of the challenge of then housing and providing for families. There had to be some negotiation so that families who were able to stay were properly provided for in local authorities.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Would my hon. Friend agree that delays, which bear on child detention, are part of a process that feeds on itself? The more delays there are, the more people have shoddy legal advisers who tell them, basically, to play for time. If at some point we could bear down on the delays, it would save us money in the medium term.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I believe that my hon. Friend would agree that, as constituency MPs, we have seen reductions in the delays. I certainly am seeing that, and the figures that the Government can provide will show that they have reduced. Yes, as she rightly says, there is a self-propelling, negative cycle.

Gavin Barwell raised some questions about the Opposition's position, and I shall make that clear. Actually, the approach of the Government is very much the approach that was under way as the previous Government left office.

My hon. Friend Ms Abbott said that she has visited detention centres and seen what goes on there. I, too, have visited them, and that was one reason I was keen, as the Minister then responsible, to have a review and to work with organisations that had an interest in the matter. As I communicated to her and, in particular, to Alistair Burt, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and who was very interested in the matter, I was frustrated that a great deal of energy was being spent on argument and disagreement, not solutions. Any solution would not have solved the problem overnight. Do Members not think that in the past 13 years the Government would have stopped detention overnight if it were that easy? It is not that easy, and that is the reality of government.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Could I make some progress, please? Let us be clear that Yarl's Wood also houses foreign national prisoners, not just families with children. We should get it into the debate that families with children are not the only people housed there.

I worry that my hon. Friend has forgotten our conversations in which I explained my plans to revisit some of the issues surrounding children in detention. Some work was done by previous Ministers responsible for immigration to improve support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, create expert local authorities that were able to deal better with those children, and create a children's champion within the UK Border Agency.

At the end of last year, my hon. Friend Mr Woolas, who in the past had focused more widely on the issue of children in the immigration system, spoke to me about his desire to see a particular ministerial focus on the issue of children in detention. He asked me to take on that responsibility. As I have said, I wanted to look at the whole picture, and I began that process by meeting a number of organisations involved, and the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire and the former Member for Bedford, because of their particular interest in this matter. Out of that meeting, held under the Chatham House rule-I will not name those who were there, although hon. Members would not be worried about that-we came up with the view that early legal advice was important, and that the early legal advice project already under way needed to be boosted. I subsequently met the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and ensured that we worked closely with it, because of its desire to see a difference in that area. That was a helpful partnership and I also worked with local groups.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I remember our conversations with great clarity. My hon. Friend is a good friend and colleague, but we took diametrically opposed views on the issue of children in detention. I thought that it was wrong, and I have always thought that. One argument is that there is a problem because this is not an easy matter, but the real Home Office position was revealed in many statements, which claimed that ultimately, children in detention were not the responsibility of the Government but that it was the fault of their parents. Behind that lies a narrative on immigration that suggests that the more punitive the system is made, the less likely people are to abuse it.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I disagree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps I could remind her that we both agreed that we should not let the better be the enemy of the good. I was attempting to improve the system, and I am pleased that we are now seeing further steps along those lines. A better take-up of assisted voluntary return was a particular issue, and I pushed hard for third parties to do that. The Government felt that it was not always appropriate if such matters were dealt with by the person who was deciding on the immigration claim, and I hope that that will be a major part of the review. Excess baggage is not a new issue, but it is an equally important one to help people settle back. We need a clearer process in which people know from the beginning what the options are, and work on that with community groups has been important. Removal directions should be provided in the community. Those things are all part of the plan and the intense work that the UK Border Agency was beginning to undertake, prior to the election.

The previous Government were learning from the best models from abroad, and the new Government are continuing with that. However, we must recognise that even those models from abroad-in Australia and Sweden, for example-allow for children to be detained under difficult circumstances. I refer the House to an Adjournment debate from 10 February 2010, in which I flagged up some of those issues, although at that point I had not met a number of the groups.

I wish this approach well, as it is the way in which the previous Government attempted to deal with the situation. However, it was not easy, and I am a little puzzled. Today the Minister reiterates an announcement of the end of children being detained, and he re-announces a welcome review that was already under way. In his opening speech, he clearly highlighted the likelihood of detention immediately prior to a flight. I refer back to my point about what would happen in the case of a late legal challenge; that is an issue that needs to be tackled and supported by the whole legal process. The Minister also mentioned the Afghanistan centre for Afghan teenagers, and I wonder whether that marks a division in the coalition, especially given the remarks made by the hon. Member for Cambridge.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration 3:44 pm, 17th June 2010

I am grateful for the unanimous support for this policy from all sides of the Chamber.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

Absolutely. This is the second time this week that something has happened to me that I suspect will never happen again. I attended the Citizens for Sanctuary summer party where, as the new Minister for Immigration, one expects to get brickbats, but instead I was given a bouquet. I suspect that that will be the last time, so I thought that I would enjoy it while it lasted. This debate is a metaphorical conclusion of that experience.

I am grateful to hon. Members from all parties for their contributions. The only comment that verged on the slightly churlish was the conclusion reached by Meg Hillier, who was attempting desperately to find splits in the coalition. I am extremely pleased and proud to be advocating our policy, which was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The hon. Lady will toil in vain if she seeks to find splits in that area.

A number of important practical points were raised and questions asked in the debate, and I will now deal with those. First, let me say that I was remiss in not thanking the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch for all the expertise and personal kindness that she showed when she was in government and I was in opposition.

Keith Vaz rightly mentioned the review by the Home Affairs Committee. As he said, he recognises many of the ideas that the Government have put forward, as many were mentioned in past reviews by that Committee. I look forward to further expert contributions from the Committee. He also went through some of the statistics for children in detention, which I think bear greater examination. He mentioned the figure of just over 1,000 for the number of children in detention in 2009. If that annual figure is broken down, one finds the slightly depressing fact that the numbers go up as we go through the year: the figure for the third quarter is higher than that for the second or first quarters.

As the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said, the central difficulty is about what should be done at the end of the process if a family simply refuses to go. Detention under the system that we are getting rid of was not necessarily effective. Of the 1,068 children who departed from detention in 2008-09, only 539 were removed and 629 were released back. There are clearly difficulties with the efficacy of removal and with taking away detention as an option-something that we are doing for all the reasons that have been advanced during the debate-but even with detention, more children were released back into the community than were removed. The old system was not particularly effective, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Leicester East for stating the actual figures, as they illustrate that fact tellingly.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Will the Minister confirm that those who were taken out of detention were never brought back into detention so as to be removed from the country again, or indeed removed from the country by another route?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

I am not entirely sure that I understood that question. Is the hon. Lady saying that those who were eventually removed had never been detained and then released, and then detained again and later removed? Is that what she is saying? The honest answer is that I do not know. I was not the Minister at that time. She was. If she says that that is the case, I am grateful for the information.

Many hon. Members have mentioned Yarl's Wood and other detention centres. I have visited Yarl's Wood on several occasions, and in my experience the regime got markedly better over the years. Last time I visited, a functioning school was in operation and so on, and it was a much more humane place than it had been in previous years. I pay tribute to the Ministers who were involved in supervising that, as well as to the staff of the UK Border Agency who made sure that it happened. I suspect that we have all had the same experience. However, even when that place was in its most humane phase, it was still disturbing to see children locked up behind bars. That is one of the things that impels our policy.

There was mention of children at Harmondsworth. I may have misunderstood the right hon. Member for Leicester East, because it is my understanding that there are and were no children held at Harmondsworth. If I have misunderstood, I apologise, but I thought that he had said that there were.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

When we visited, there were no children there. I was just visiting Harmondsworth.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful for that clarification. The position was not entirely clear.

The point was rightly made about access to local authority services. Local authority social services are embedded at Yarl's Wood; they are there permanently.

My final point about the statistics is that the figure was more than 1,000 and it is now five, so we are doing our best, even in the interim phase while the review is going on, to keep the numbers to an absolute minimum.

Various Members on both sides of the Chamber brought up the issue of delays, which lead to problems in the system. I think that I was being invited by the right hon. Gentleman to give a new time scale for the end of the legacy. Given all his experience, he will excuse me from making such commitments in my second outing at the Dispatch Box, but he will know, from having sat through many of these debates with me in the past four years, that like him, I have been very exercised by the problem of delay.

I dare say that those who were Ministers in the previous Government would not dissent from the basic proposition that the long delays embedded in the system lead to many of the associated problems that we see. Bearing down on those delays and getting rid of the old legacy, as it has been called, as fast as possible is clearly a high priority. That will have beneficial spin-offs throughout the asylum system and, indeed, the wider immigration system.

At various stages, the debate drifted into a general immigration debate, and it is perfectly reasonable that the same points apply in that context. The fewer delays we have, the more likely we are to avoid the problems that we have seen, although it is a fair point-it was made by Ministers in the previous Government and will be made by me-that not every delay in the system is caused by the system. Not every delay is caused by the border agency. Some delay is caused by the legal processes that people have the right to go through and do go through.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

On the question of delays, one thing that successive Ministers in the previous Administration never understood is that if we, in a panic-usually occasioned by the tabloid press-bear down on one aspect of the system, all that does is displace pressure to another aspect. That is why we were never successful in dealing with delays overall. We bore down on one thing-Romanian ladies in headscarves-and then got a bulge of children who claimed to be 18 but were not. So I beg, in a non-party political way, for a strategic, all-embracing approach. That in the end will produce the desired result.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

I agree with that point and will seek to take the friendly advice that the hon. Lady offers across the Chamber in that regard.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Conservative, Croydon Central

Does the Minister agree that one of the other reasons for delay and one that causes great frustration to UKBA staff is the difficulty of returning people to certain countries? Will he work with colleagues at the Foreign Office to see whether we can secure improved arrangements in that regard?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration

Absolutely so. The whole Government are working very hard to ensure that those who have no right to remain here are returned to their countries of origin. My hon. Friend, who has huge expertise already in this matter, representing Croydon Central, will have noticed that when the Government and the UK Border Agency have some successes in that regard, it is not universally popular. We are being criticised this week for resuming returns to Iraq, but that has to be part of the process; otherwise, the process will silt up.

Let me make some progress, as I am conscious of the time and there are many questions to answer. A point made by various hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Gavin Barwell and the right hon. Member for Leicester East, was about resources. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the state of the public finances left by the Government he supported for 13 years. As a result, there will be difficulties. All I can sensibly say is that the management of resources is as important as the quantum of resources. That is one of the things that the new Government are most eager to get to grips with as fast as possible, and we shall be doing so as part of the general spending review.

Various hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, asked about the Glasgow pilot. She will know that it encourages refused asylum seeker families to return voluntarily by providing intensive support, which is focused on helping families to confront issues that delay a return and building up skills to prepare for a voluntary return. Thirty-two families have been referred to the Glasgow pilot; 11 have been accommodated there. I am afraid that nothing has changed in that regard since the hon. Lady left office. No families have elected to return voluntarily to their home countries, and enforced departure has taken place of three families who were initially accepted into the project. However, she and I need not despair at this point, because one of the things that I learned when I was in Glasgow earlier this week was that the fact of that project has spread awareness of assisted voluntary return much more widely among the various communities-she will be aware that there are large numbers of such families there-which in itself has led to a significant surge in applications for voluntary return. The availability of that process and the information on it is quite heartening in terms of the wider review that I am conducting. The more aware we can make families of the existence of voluntary return, the more they seem to be interested in it. It is a difficult set of options before the Government, but that is one of the heartening points that should be made.

I will attempt to answer all the questions the hon. Lady asked. On Dungavel, in the one or two cases that occur now, the families are moved to Yarl's Wood, so that is the only place where they are being held. The problem is lessening slightly as I progress through this speech. I have now learned that only three children are in detention at the moment at Yarl's Wood. She asked, as others did, about local authorities. Clearly, the local authorities with the most expertise, whether we are talking about Croydon, Kent or Hillingdon-the ones that people would expect to be involved-will play a significant role in the review, but I take her point that other local authorities will need to be informed.

The hon. Lady asked about community organisations. One reason for trying to get out as much as possible is to engage not only the national end of the various organisations that are most concerned with either the welfare of children or, specifically, families in the position that we are discussing, but the organisations on the ground around the country, so that they can contribute their considerable expertise to the review.

On assisted voluntary return, the hon. Lady makes the point that we are living in a time of spending stringency. All I can sensibly say at this point is that, as she knows, in the long run nothing is as expensive as detention. Building and maintaining detention centres is more expensive than providing people with packages to return voluntarily, so if all goes well, the net effect on the public purse will also be beneficial.

The hon. Lady asked about the legal advice that I am receiving. All I can say gently is that I do not remember her ever sharing the legal advice that she received from Home Office lawyers when she was standing at the Dispatch Box. That was a very good habit of hers, which I intend to take up.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. It has been extremely constructive. This is not necessarily an easy problem to solve, but we all agree that it must be solved. We cannot go on with the system that we had in the past. The final big question was when we shall finish the review. The report will be on my desk in the early weeks of July, and I shall proceed with all possible speed after that to come to a full conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.