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Detention of Children (UK Border Agency)

Volume 502: debated on Monday 14 December 2009

I have recently assumed responsibility for this area of policy and I most recently met officials on 8 December. However, clearly I meet regularly with officials on this issue.

The report published last week by the coalition of the royal medical colleges made it clear that children who are detained in immigration removal centres suffer from mental health problems and consider self-harm and occasionally even suicide. There can be no other area of law or public policy where the interests of the child lag so far behind considerations of administrative convenience or political expediency. When will the Government act to end this disgraceful practice?

Clearly, we do not wish to detain families with children where that is avoidable. However, detention is considered when a family has reached the end of the line—when appeals have been made and refused—and they are only detained for a matter of usually a few days immediately prior to a flight being taken. Let me point out that the report in question considered only 24 cases out of those of the 382 children who were in detention during the period of the report—fewer than 10 per cent. It did not take into account the views of the clinicians who worked with those children and who know them. There are many pressures on children, and it is not clear that those pressures and problems arise merely from detention.

The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families recognises that this is a very difficult area, but the whole issue of people in prison and children in prison has not been wonderful under any Government of any party. Could we be more sensitive in the way we treat these children and ensure that they have the full package of support, even for a short time?

I can reassure my hon. Friend on two counts. First, children who are detained have a full package of support, including education and access to health care. Crucially, they are with their parents, from whom I would not want to see them separated. Secondly, my hon. Friend raises a wider point about how we deal with such children. We have a pilot running in Glasgow, with Glasgow city council and the Scottish Government, to try to find alternatives. That pilot follows on from one in Kent, and we believe that it is much better and might achieve better results.

This is not as small a problem as the Minister seems to be suggesting. It was revealed in parliamentary answers in June that 470 children, most of whom were under five, were in such detention. Contrary to the impression that the Minister has given, a third of them had been incarcerated for longer than a month. Does she accept that being locked up is traumatic for many young children and is likely to leave psychological scars? Does she accept that the practice of incarcerating children so young is in contravention of the UN convention on the rights of the child? Will she now agree with me—

I am not sure where to begin! Seriously, though, I must first correct the hon. Gentleman’s figures. Up to 30 September this year, 25 children were detained for seven days or less—in time for a flight—five were detained for eight to 14 days, and five were detained for 15 to 28 days. A further 10 were detained for 29 days but for less than two months, and none were detained for longer than that. That is an average of just under 16 days. This is always a difficult issue, but we are a Government who are not afraid to duck the tough challenges. [Interruption.] Indeed, we are not. It is important that children are not separated from their parents, and I am not sure what the alternative is. If a parent repeatedly refuses to go when their case reaches the end of the line, they have some responsibility. They are offered many packages, but some choose not to take them and are then detained. I would not want to see young children separated from their parents.

I am glad that the figures have been updated, but the figures that I quoted were from the Home Office. Why has the Home Office not learned lessons from Canada and Sweden, which have abolished the practice of holding children in custody while their parents await clarification of their status? Surely, any means other than custody of ensuring that those people do not abscond would be preferable—the tagging of adults, for example.

We go to great lengths to make sure that we do not detain children. It is only in extreme cases in which parents repeatedly refuse to leave of their own accord that we do so. It is important that the family are a united group at the point at which they are destined for removal. I repeat the simple but important point that I, as the Minister responsible, would not want to see young children separated from their parents.