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Asylum Seekers: Detention Of Children

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 3 March 2005

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11.20 a.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the Save the Children report on the detention of children, No Place for a Child.

My Lords, we welcome the report as a valuable contribution to the debate about family detention. This is a detailed report and we will need to consider the contents and recommendations extremely carefully before responding in full, which we will do in due course.

My Lords, why does the noble Lord need more time to consider the recommendations made in this report when it simply reinforces what has already been said by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the UNHCR? All have criticised our policy of detaining 2,000 children a year, half of them for longer than the 28-day period which the noble Lord himself has said should be the upper limit. Does he not agree that, in the light of all the reports, there should be a root-and-branch review of the policy of detaining children with a view to complying with the Government's own enunciated policy of keeping as few as possible in custody for the minimum length of time?

My Lords, the Government received the report on Monday. I ought to pay a compliment to Save the Children because this report is the fruit of a very good dialogue between Save the Children and the Home Office. We now look forward to continuing discussions with the charity so that we can consider its recommendations in a spirit of co-operation. We are at one with the noble Lord in wanting children to be detained for only the shortest possible period. We want also to ensure that such children are well looked after and cared for. It is clear that there are shared objectives here and we very much welcome the report in that light.

My Lords, are the Government taking seriously the very widespread concern, beyond even the question of children, about the privatised detention and removal of people from this country? Has the noble Lord himself looked into the allegations of racism, bullying and the use of excessive force in both detention centres and during the removal process?

My Lords, we take allegations of racism and excessive force very seriously indeed. Those matters have to be properly investigated. It is in no one's interest if such allegations have any substance. If anything substantial is found, those responsible need to be rooted out of the service. However, it is true that the vast majority of those working in detention centres and who are part of the removals process are honest, hardworking people with decent values. However, where we do come across unacceptable behaviour or practice, we need to ensure that they are brought to an end.

Whether care is better conducted by private contractors or by direct labour organisations is a matter for conjecture. In general terms, however, we find that the services provided by the private sector are of an extremely high quality.

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord was able to see the programme on television last night showing incidents of real abuse, racial intolerance and total indiscipline on the part of certain members of staff. I know that he has duties in this House, so perhaps it is a little unfair to hurl this at him. However, when Home Office representatives have had time to watch the programme and digest its implications, will he please arrange for a Statement in this House on the whole issue of poor discipline among Immigration Service guards?

My Lords, regrettably I was not able to watch the programme shown last night. I wish that I had been able to because, like all other Members of Her Majesty's Government and particularly those with responsibilities for and interests in Home Office affairs, I take very seriously any allegations of racism and racist abuse. I like to think that I am part of a proud record of dealing with those issues. However, I can tell the noble Earl this morning that later today the Home Office will produce a Written Statement on the issues arising from the television programme. However, in fairness to all the other staff at Oakington who have not been implicated in any way—there are some 900 staff at the centre—I ought to place on the record our tribute to their hard work and determination to act in an entirely proper way when dealing with immigration detainees. I understand that the allegations relate to only a small number of people, many of whom have already had their licences to act as staff revoked. and quite rightly so.

My Lords, as my noble friend pointed out in his supplementary question, this issue has been raised not only in the Save the Children report, but also by both the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Human Rights Committee under two international human rights treaties. Is the noble Lord aware that they have found the United Kingdom to be in breach of its international legal obligations? Given that, why on earth are the Government now procrastinating over a proper answer to the question posed by Save the Children in its report? Is it not time to end this abuse as soon as possible, in accordance with our international legal obligations?

My Lords, I reject the allegation that this Government are procrastinating on these issues. I think that we have a very good human rights record and I would argue with the noble Lord that the treatment of failed asylum seekers who have to be detained before they are removed is fair and proportionate. Where there are abuses, we wish to know about them. Where there are abuses, we will tackle them. That is precisely why I replied as I did to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, just a few moments ago.

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that the action being taken by the Government to bring home the fact that they will not tolerate racism in the Immigration Service and elsewhere makes it appropriate to argue strongly that the way immigration policy is administered is absolutely central to the battle for hearts and minds in the context of global security; that is, by winning friends and not driving people into the arms of extremist opposition?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point. We have to be seen to be acting fairly and properly by running a decent and humane Immigration Service. In large measure, I invite my noble friend and other noble Lords to agree that that is exactly the approach undertaken by this Government over the past few years.

My Lords, I want to pursue slightly further the question put by my noble friend Lord Lester. Do the Government subscribe to international standards and guidelines which state that asylum-seeking children should not be detained? If that is the case, why is it necessary to put down a reservation on this matter with the UNCRC?

My Lords, in appropriate circumstances, particularly where families are being removed because their application has failed. it is only decent and proper to ensure that those children are held together with their families before they return to their country of origin. The noble Lord will know also that it is our policy to place unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the care of local authorities, not to hold them in detention centres. That, too, is right and proper.

My Lords, has the noble Lord noticed among the findings set out in the Save the Children report that there is a severe lack of legal representation for many children being held in detention? Does that not undermine completely the principle of bail in detention?

My Lords, this clearly is an important issue. It is part of the report and one of the 21 recommendations that we, as a government, need to digest carefully and consider further. I am sure the noble Earl will have heard at the outset of my responses that we desire to have a continued dialogue with Save the Children. We believe that the report is a very important contribution to that debate, which needs to continue. We will of course endeavour to respond in detail to all the recommendations in order that we can come to an agreed and acceptable way of ensuring that such children are well looked after and cared for.

My Lords, will the Minister take note of the concerns expressed in the report on the voluntary aided return programme? People working both in the Home Office and outside are concerned that the voluntary aided return programme is not being raised more clearly with asylum seekers, both at the initial stage of application and in detention centres. Indeed, it was a recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee of the other House in 2003 that more work should be done in this area. Will the Minister look carefully at this matter?

My Lords, we take all of the recommendations seriously. This is clearly an important one to which we will give fair consideration. We of course wish to have a dialogue with the charities and NGOs involved in those discussions.