My Lords, national statistics on persons, including children, held in detention are published quarterly. The latest published information can be found on the Home Office website. At 31 October 2009, 27 persons under 18 years of age were detained at Yarl’s Wood. This information is taken from data used for management information only. It is provisional and not subject to the detailed checks that apply for national statistics publications.
Does my noble friend agree—I know that he is a very caring person—that it is surely wrong in principle that children should be detained in prison-like conditions? Does he further agree that this practice has been condemned by a range of charities, the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Children’s Commissioner and is a breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? I ask my noble friend in all sincerity to have his department look again at the pilot project that was tried out in Kent a couple of years ago, which his department says failed, but which was never given a chance to succeed, whereby children and families were given accommodation but were not detained.
My Lords, I quite understand where my noble friend’s Question is coming from, and it reflects the feeling of the House. No one wants to detain children. We do this only if their families have refused to leave the UK voluntarily, despite lots of financial and other support being offered them, and we have to enforce that removal. It is absolutely right that we should protect our borders from false asylum claimants. We detain children with their families because we think it would be worse if we split them from their families. That is why they are kept together. We do this sensitively, our staff are trained and we have to identify children’s needs. We want every child to be as safe and secure as possible. The Kent establishment did not really work. We have now opened a pilot in Glasgow. That is going extremely well but we shall have to see how it settles down. It began in June this year and will run for three years. It is a long-term project, in which 17 families are involved so far. I hope that it is a success, because clearly we would much rather do that than have them in a detention centre.
My Lords, I am sure many Members of the House agree with the sentiments that lie behind the noble Lord’s Question. However, for as long as children are detained in places such as Yarl’s Wood, how will the new duty that has been laid on the Minister to take special care over the conditions of children be discharged, since clearly the conditions which prevail which led to these reports are very unsatisfactory indeed? How will conditions change?
My Lords, we say conditions are very poor but a number of inspections have been carried out at Yarl’s Wood and we have had some very good reports fairly recently. In giving evidence, Sir Al Aynsley-Green said that he had to give credit to that establishment for the improvements that have occurred over four years since the first time he went there. He said that the staff were trying to do well, and he celebrated that, but thought that there might still be some way to go. The IMB report acknowledges the dedication, kindness and patience of the staff involved. We have subjected ourselves to all the guidance about looking after and taking care of children. We are in contact and debating with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. We have debates with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Children, Young People and Families. The statutory guidance is supported by a programme of reform, so we are very much taking these things seriously and it is being implemented in conjunction with all the various people involved with children’s welfare.
My Lords, the Government and the Conservatives talk of just changing the conditions in which children are kept. Is it not a question of working out a way in which children are not detained at all? Can the Minister confirm that out of those children who are let out of detention with their families, less than half have been removed anyway, and they should not have been detained in the first place?
My Lords, the children are normally taken into Yarl’s Wood when their family is coming towards the end of the period before they leave the country, because they are false asylum claimants. We have an absolute obligation to this country to maintain a safe and secure border. What happens then is that things are delayed. Why are they delayed? Obviously, for each individual this is a personal tragedy. They want to be in this country; of course they do. I like being in this country. I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. Lots of people around the world would rather be here, but that does not mean that they all have a right to be here. What they do is obfuscate, make it very difficult to pin down exactly where they have come from and they spin it out. That is why it goes on. I cannot blame them for trying to do that, but we have to bowl it out and take action. This is what happens if we wish to keep the family together, children and adults. I am afraid that that is why we have arrived where we are. We take huge care in trying to look after them.
Has the Minister studied the recent report from the Zimbabwe Association which highlights the bad effects of detention on adults? Surely, if that is the effect on adults, the effect on children must be much worse, because of uncertainty and not understanding what is going on. Will he introduce a system of case work and legal advice for that tiny minority of applicants who have children?
My Lords, I have not read the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, refers. I know that he has a particular interest in this area, and we had an interesting debate earlier this week. I will certainly look at that report, but I cannot make any promises in that area. I go back to the fact that if these people took the voluntary opportunity we give them, with financial support and other things, the problem would solve itself, in a sense.
My Lords, I do not have the exact answer to that at my fingertips. Perhaps I may look at it and get back to the noble Lord in writing. I cannot see why that would not be possible while the children are staying with their parents. However, we want to keep them with their parents—not have them living separately and going to school while their parents are in detention.
My Lords, is the Minister not entirely right to imply that these people are not detained against their will? They are perfectly free to leave Yarl’s Wood at any time with their children, but they are not allowed to enter this country. Detention is not the right word. They are voluntarily there and they have an alternative.
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. If they accepted the opportunity for voluntary return, they would not be there. Clearly they are trying to break the rules, they are desperate to stay, and that is why we have to hold onto them so that they do not abscond and they are not a problem.
My Lords, we have used our time on the first Question—seven and a half minutes.