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Asylum Seekers' Children

Volume 404: debated on Thursday 8 May 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Caplin.]

6.28 pm

I am pleased that the system has allowed me to secure this Adjournment debate on an important developing issue. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration—I did not anticipate that much of her time today would be taken up with a report produced by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It says that the abuse of the asylum process is a problem, and I agree that there is a need for a strong and controlled immigration policy. I have, in fact, appeared in the media to defend some aspects of the Government's strong policy. Locking up asylum seekers' children does not contribute to solving that problem. It distracts us from facing up to the fact that there is probably a large number of absconding and disappearing people who enter this country, claim asylum, but then pursue the path of illegal immigration.

That is a distraction, and I believe that it is a very offensive one. The offence caused by locking up the children of asylum seekers is compounded because the act of detention—that is what it has become—is different from the expression that is used, which is that it is part of a removal process. That has been the argument all along, but there is no way in which changing the name of detention centres to removal centres can hide the facts. It appears that we are scapegoating families, who are often easy to trace—people who are seeking social and educational services for their children are easier to trace—because we cannot deal with the mass of people who are not burdened or accompanied by families and can easily disappear into the grey economy of this country.

As the Minister knows, I am here because of what happened and is possibly still happening at Dungavel, the former prison in Scotland that is now a detention or removal centre. Following further research and thought about this matter and about the concerns to which I was alerted by those campaigning about what is happening in Dungavel—in particular, they include the justice and peace movement of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, led by Bishop John Mone of Paisley—I am led to believe that it is not only what is happening at Dungavel that is the problem, but the basis on which we establish the right to detain the children of asylum seekers and the way in which they are detained.

I wish to pay some compliments to the people who have become involved in the process. A great number have done so and they have sent me a large number of contributions; in fact, there are probably too many for me to use. Contributors include the Refugee Alliance in Scotland, people from BID—Bail for Immigration Detainees—who have supplied me with a number of documents that I have passed on to the Minister, the Children's Society and a group called the Refugee Children's Consortium, which comprises Save the Children, the Children's Society, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo's and the Refugee Council, all of which have expressed views similar to that expressed by Bishop Mone.

I also draw the Minister's attention to the new report published by BID following research by Emma Cole, called "A Few Families Too Many". The report deals with the experience of a number of families who have been detained in the United Kingdom. Other groups in Scotland that are taking an interest in this matter include the Church of Scotland education committee, the Scottish Episcopal Church education committee and the Roman Catholic education committee in Scotland, and it also features in the Church and Nation Committee report, which is going to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in a few weeks and I am sure will be debated at that time. A large number of people are hoping for a change in Government policy. Even though it was soundly defended when the legislation was introduced, it has now shown itself to be flawed.

Let me move on to the question of why we have reached the current position. As the Minister knows, Bishop Mone's visit to Dungavel led him to write a document and publish it in the media. It said:

"What is happening is quite unacceptable. You cannot just lock up children like this…Protecting children has been high on the agenda of our people in recent times and to ignore what is going on at Dungavel shames us all."
I believe that that is echoed by the fact that 20,000-plus people have so far signed the petition on this matter that I hope to present to the House in a few days or weeks. Bishop Mone called on the Home Secretary

"to close the 'Family Unit' at Dungavel and to find a more humane way of dealing with the application for asylum made by families."
Bishop Mone then entered into correspondence with the Home Secretary. As always, the bishop was extremely courteous and complimentary to the people who have tried to do their best in Dungavel, but he was still firm in his opinion that it was unacceptable to detain children in conditions such as those that he found there. In that correspondence, the Home Secretary said that attempts were made to ensure that no one was detained longer than necessary.

In his response of 4 April, which Bishop Mone has given me permission to quote and circulate if necessary, the bishop said that to state that no one was detained longer than necessary was surely too vague. He said that detention had extended to eight months and beyond for some of the children he had met. We know that we are talking here about the Ay family from Iraq. He was also concerned that, while some children had not been detained as long as eight months, they had been detained beyond the removal time envisaged.

I visited Dungavel, and although I found staff who were caring and warm and trying to moderate the impact of the detention process, I found the same conditions that I had found only a couple of years ago when it was a prison when I went to visit some of my constituents, who were UVF gun runners, and it was barely an adequate facility to put them in. The barbed wire was still there. The large fence was still there. In fact, a plate some 10 ft high had been added so that people could not see in or out. My overall assessment of Dungavel was—I perhaps offended the people there because I was too honest—that it was a terrible place to detain children. It is a facility that we should not use, but even if it were moderated, the principle of locking up children is wrong.

So how did we get here? I believe that section 22 of the Immigration Act 1971 gave the Secretary of State a power to detain children, but it was as part of an immediate process of removal and was specifically for the very short term. It was for people who had been told that they could not stay, who were to be taken to an airport or other port and in the process might have to be detained temporarily.

I saw nothing in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 that enhanced that power, yet there has been a creeping process of detaining children with their parents seeking asylum since 1999. Lord Filkin gave an assurance in the House of Lords when he said:
"I am not aware of any shift in policy between the 1999 and 2002 White Papers"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 435.]
But there was a change in policy. A ministerial decision was taken to reinterpret the powers in the Immigration Act 1971 and to use them differently to institute a new approach to the detention of children. I presume, given that the accommodation is open, that contracts must have been let before the passing of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 for detention centres to contain family accommodation at Dungavel and some other locations.

In letters of 25 October 2001 and 18 June 2002 to the director of BID, the Home Office admits that it is about to enhance the accommodation. In October 2001 and by 18 June 2002, it admits that it was done by ministerial decision, not on the basis of a change in primary legislation.

I presume that section 55(5) of the 2002 Act confirmed the new approach. I read the description of it in the explanatory notes to the Bill. They said that the clause
"shall not prevent the Secretary of Stale exercising his power"
to avoid the breach of a person's rights under the European convention on human rights. We have taken a firm decision to become more and more confirmed in our regressive policy towards the children and families of asylum seekers.

It is interesting to look at why we said that we needed to do that. The Minister in correspondence with me said that the White Paper confirmed that decision. She said that section 4.77 said:

"it is especially important in the case of families that detention should be used only when necessary and should not be for an excessive period."
Yet at the same time, in rejecting the attempts made by a number of bishops in the other place first to have the detention of children excluded from the Act and then to have a time limit of 10 days on those detentions, Lord Bassam was clear. He stated several reasons that may have made logical sense. First, people may have had difficulty in verifying the facts of their application—for example, who they were, where they had come from and whether they had applied for asylum before. Secondly, they may be about to be removed. Thirdly, they would be unlikely to comply with temporary admission or release. In other words, he was saying that if they were given a chance to stay temporarily, they would abscond.

The document "A Few Families Too Many" makes it clear that that view is stated without any statistical analysis or research by the Home Office or any organisation on its behalf. The analysis by Bail for Immigration Detainees and others shows that where a family with children is given temporary admission, the first thing that they do is register the children at school. They are easy to find. They look for doctors, health services and social services. Irrespective of whether the process that expelled them from their country was traumatic, the process of travelling will have traumatised them.

On medical treatment, the all-party parliamentary groups on refugees and on AIDS are holding a number of parliamentary hearings to do with migration and HIV/AIDS. As we heard at one of our hearings this afternoon, if people are unwell and in need of medical treatment, the last thing they will do is attempt to abscond. The issue of HIV/AIDS, which tends to centre around adults, tends to put additional pressure on children in families living in such centres.

I fully accept that point and thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The BID report makes it clear that there are too many cases of families being held for long periods. It is not a removal process but a detention process. In that situation, people develop illnesses—not only psychological but physical. That is especially true of children but sometimes of their parents, too.

On the education of asylum seekers' children, does my hon. Friend share my concern about a family in my constituency? Their 16 and 18-year-old children were at school for four years in this country. One was about to take GCSEs and the other was about to take A-levels. Just three weeks before those exams, they were taken with their whole family and detained, and not allowed to sit them. When they were released, the mother had a mental breakdown and was committed to a mental asylum, and the father, who was deaf and dumb, found it incredibly hard to cope. Should not such families be treated more sympathetically?

That is the case that I am putting, which was put by the justice and peace committee. It is the case that I put to the Minister—perhaps not lucidly enough, given the reply that I received—when I met her to discuss the problems that my research had exposed regarding families who were detained.

On the other side of the coin, I want to mention an excellent report by the Children's Society in Scotland, which follows another excellent report by FMR Research, examines the beneficial effects on families and the communities in which they settle. A study of more than 900 children who settled in Scotland shows that they raised the achievement of schools. Those children are so keen on education and on doing well that they raise the aspirations of the children around them and give them role models. It is well documented that that gives children a stable base, so that should they be removed they go back in a much steadier position, with much better understanding, as well as with a much warmer feeling about our country than they would have had if they had been ripped out of their education.

By effecting this policy, we have denied children their rights under the European convention on human rights and the UN charter on human rights. My question was, "Does the policy effect the Government's instructions or aspirations?" I believe that it does not. The report, "A Few Families Too Many" finds that there is possibly institutional prejudice in the immigration service, which puts people in detention before it has any right to do that. They are subsequently trapped.

When the media questioned the Home Office about the Ay family's eight-month stay, its e-mail added something that was never mentioned in legislation. It stated that the families cause problems for their children through making last-minute appeals and that those who are held for a long time are in the judicial process and have an appeal or a judicial review. Surely that is not the same as a process of removal. Detention is like a punishment for daring to question the removal process. That applies in the case of the Ay family.

We have a list of other families with prolonged stays in detention. One family has been detained for 161 days, another for 111 days, another for 87 days and another for 81 days. The Ay family is heading for 270 days, which is in breach of every guideline that the Government set.

The appeals not to detain children, and subsequently for a term of 10 days, were rejected when the Bill was considered. Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons produced a report entitled, "Introduction and Summary of Findings: Inspection of five Immigration Service custodial establishments" in April. Recommendation 5 states that the detention of children should be avoided whenever possible, only take place for the shortest possible time and in no case be for more than seven days. That is even less than was requested. Sadly, the Home Office response, which I have taken from the website, states:

"It is completely impractical to suggest a time limit—which would enable people to evade removal by lodging last minute and time-wasting appeals."
We either respect the judicial process—and treat people as having the right to temporary admission while that progresses—or we admit that we use the removal process as a form of punishment. The only way in which to square the circle is for the Government to take all the advice, including that from the chief inspector of prisons, and not keep people in detention except for the short period when they are in transit for removal.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for not giving her much time to reply, but I am sure that we shall correspond on the matter in future. It will not go away.

6.47 pm

I welcome the opportunity to put on record the Government's policy and practice on the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk. East (Mr. Connarty) raises. As he said, he has raised them with me previously; we have corresponded and I have met him. I am pleased to have the opportunity to reply in a more public domain.

I appreciate that the subject of detaining families with children rightly arouses interest and concern. As a Minister, I expect to have to answer questions on it and justify it. Sometimes the concern is misplaced or misdirected, and some comments have been made in that vein today. However, it is understandable and I share people's concern; I do not dissociate myself from it in implementing Government policy.

I want to clarify the legislative basis on which families with children are detained and our policy on the use of detention in such cases. As my hon. Friend rightly says, paragraph 16 of schedule 2 of the Immigration Act 1971 provides for the power to detain people, including families with children. It provides for the detention of those subject to immigration control in specific circumstances, such as pending a decision on granting leave to enter; pending the giving of removal directions; and pending removal in line with such directions.

The 1998 White Paper clarified that detention would be most appropriate initially when establishing a person's identity or the basis of their claim and when there is reason to believe that a person will fail to comply with any conditions attached to the grant of temporary admission or release, or to effect removal. Detention may also be appropriate if it appears that an asylum claim is straightforward and capable of being determined quickly through fast-track procedures.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, prior to October 2001, families with children were detained under those powers, but as a matter of policy rather than law, using qualified detention criteria that meant that families would be detained only to go through the Oakington fast-track asylum process, or for one or two days immediately prior to removal. He is also right to say that, in October 2001, it was decided to remove this qualification and to allow the detention of families under the same detention criteria as others. That was done in recognition of the fact that families—or the adults in families, anyway—can give rise to the same concerns as single adults, in terms of absconding or frustrating removal.

My hon. Friend ought to accept—although he might not do so—that the need to maintain effective immigration control is a legitimate concern of the Government and something that the public expect us to do. That means that we have to remove those people who have no right to stay here, and I am afraid that, difficult as it sometimes is to contemplate, that applies as much to families as to single adults. To suggest otherwise might be comforting and reassuring, but it would be to ignore the reality of some of the situations that we face.

The effect of the change in policy was to allow the detention of families in appropriate and selected cases, at times other than just prior to removal or at Oakington. That decision was confirmed in the White Paper in 2002. I readily acknowledge that detention is a difficult issue to contemplate, and it is especially difficult to contemplate in cases involving families with children, but I am afraid that because of the situations that we meet in reality, it is a necessary element in the effective enforcement of immigration control, and it has to be applied to some families, albeit a very small number—a very tiny proportion—of the families in the immigration system.

I entirely reject my hon. Friend's assertion that families are targeted for detention, or that they are detained except in the most exceptional circumstances or for the shortest possible period of time. I also reject his very regrettable assertion that immigration staff exercise institutional prejudice, or prejudice of any other kind, in making their decisions about detaining families prior to removal. That is not the case. People are not detained lightly, particularly families. Each case has to be considered carefully on its merits, and in all cases it is our policy that the presumption should continue to be in favour of granting temporary admission or release, where that is possible. I can say categorically that no family is detained simply because there is suitable accommodation available. A decision to detain is based on the particular circumstances of the family in question, and on their immigration history.

I am deeply sympathetic to concerns about the detention of children. It is not something that we do easily or gladly, and it is certainly not our intention—or our practice—that children should be in detention for prolonged periods. I am aware of the views of my hon. Friend, and he was honest enough to say that in his view it was a matter of principle that no child should ever be in detention for any reason whatever. I also know that that view is shared by some of the non-governmental organisations. My hon. Friend quoted the BID report, "A Few Families Too Many". It is an interesting report, but what he did not say was that it was based on a tiny sample of only nine families, two of whom were never detained, as I understand it. Clearly, that report puts forward the subjective views of those families without giving the context or the detail of the reasons why particular decisions were made in those individual cases. That context has to be understood, particularly by Members of Parliament, because we all have responsibilities to our other constituents, many of whom express great concern about the current situation in relation to asylum in this country. As my hon. Friend said, I was speaking about that to a great extent today in relation to the Home Affairs Committee report.

I accept the views of NGOs and I know what they think, but I have to say to them that detention, where it takes place, will always be for as short a time as possible and for no longer than is necessary. That period will vary from case to case, depending on individual circumstances. The average for families in detention is just a few days, although I accept that the variance is greater and that some families have been in detention for longer. I can tell my hon. Friend, however, that prolonged detention, as in the example of the family whom he identified who have been in Dungavel, is very much the exception rather than the rule. Most families who are detained, pending those few days, go on to be removed.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend does not accept it, but I have to say that, in reality, the longer periods of detention are not the fault of those who are detained in the sense that he has outlined, but a consequence of decisions that they have taken, particularly in relation to absconding and not abiding by immigration law and decisions applied to them. Clearly, that is to do with the decisions taken by adults in those families—I accept that—but those adults have to comply with what is required of them. That is fair and reasonable. It is regrettable that the consequences of their actions also apply to any children in the family, but the thrust of the policy, especially when children are involved, is that detention will be as brief as possible.

In the few minutes remaining, I want to touch on one or two other issues that my hon. Friend raised. He mentioned a particular family who have been in Dungavel for a considerable time. I may say to him, without going through the chronology, that the case is exceptional. It began in 1988 and this couple have taken their children through several European countries over a long period. We have to remove this family. Owing to their history, at the moment, while legal proceedings continue, they have to be detained. As my hon. Friend knows, however, there are safeguards in the system. In fact, during an application for leave to appeal, as recently as December, an application for bail was also made in relation to the family. Despite assurances of several thousand pounds being offered, the judge decided that in view of the history of those particular adults in the UK and in Germany over a long—

The motion having been made after Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes to Seven o'clock.