My Lords, I am unable to provide a date for the ending of detention of children for immigration purposes but we remain determined to end this practice as soon as possible. Working with NGOs, we are designing and testing alternative arrangements to protect children’s welfare while ensuring the return of families who have no right to be here. We are making significant progress.
I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Will she make available in the Library every week a list of the numbers of detained children, where they are detained and their ages, so that we can end this practice and monitor it if a list is available for us to refer to? Will she accompany three or four of us to Yarl’s Wood so that we can see the situation there for ourselves?
My Lords, it is perfectly reasonable to make these arrangements. We will certainly be glad to arrange a visit to Yarl’s Wood. The number of children in detention is either zero or two. I cannot give an exact figure as it depends on whether the two children in a family who knowingly entered the country illegally yesterday are still in detention; they may have been briefly. However, the numbers are very low.
Is it not time for both parties in the Government to admit that they made promises to the electorate on this emotive issue which they cannot keep because, if they do, they will end up taking children into care or forcefully separating them from their parents? That admission from the Government is long overdue. We all want to minimise this practice to the absolute smallest limit, but let us be realistic and not make promises which we cannot keep, as the Government have done too often on matters such as this.
My Lords, I do not accept that. We are going to keep this promise. We are trying to go upstream of the previous procedures for requiring families to leave by encouraging voluntary return. We are engaged in that pilot with the help of NGOs. We will, and must, honour an undertaking that we have given.
My Lords, bearing in mind that the Royal College of Paediatrics and others have said that significant harm is caused to children detained for immigration control purposes, why has this process not been brought to an end? Will the noble Baroness give a date when the facilities at Yarl’s Wood and other places of detention are to be dismantled so that such detentions cannot happen again?
My Lords, I wish I could give a date. We cannot do that because, as things stand, we are taking seriously the whole business of how we bring about a situation whereby it is no longer necessary to detain children. It requires time to get the right procedures in place and, if I may put it this way, it is an earnest of our seriousness that we are going into considerable detail to get the right procedures.
My Lords, I am aware that this figure of a fortnight has got around to being perceived as some sort of deadline, whereas a fortnight is the absolute minimum period that the families are given to consider voluntary return. I do not want to set a timetable for the other end. We would obviously like to achieve a high rate of voluntary return which would take place as soon as was possible and at the least cost to the taxpayer.
But, my Lords, the noble Baroness has not answered my noble friend. The coalition agreement states that the Government will end the detention of children for immigration purposes. Her honourable friend Damian Green said on 6 September in the other place that the policy was to minimise the detention of children. Why the change in policy?
The emphasis of our policy is obviously on keeping families together. I trust that we will not be in a situation in which children are detained for any length of period at all; but certainly if they were, education would be a very important factor.
My Lords, has the Minister taken a view on whether families should be deported to countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Zimbabwe, and particularly on the impact, which could be considerable on those being deported, of sending families with children back to those countries?
Can the Minister confirm that Yarl’s Wood, which was opened on my watch as a Home Office Minister, remains a removal centre and not a detention centre? As she will find out, if people are reluctant to go and they have children, it is not possible to organise removals economically and humanely by knocking on their doors; nor, if one wants to keep the family together, is it possible to do so other than by the family spending a minimum short period in a removal centre. That is not detention in the normal use of the word.
The noble Lord points to some of the difficulties that arise. In our view, it is certainly not humane to knock on people’s doors and require them to go absolutely immediately to a train or plane. Indeed, removal to a centre such as Yarl’s Wood, which has facilities, is sometimes the right procedure. The situation varies from case to case but we entirely accept that the procedure to be followed should be humane and in the interests of the family, and the children in particular.
My Lords, is it possible to persuade the border agency not immediately to deport children, often by breaking into their homes in the early hours of the morning, but perhaps, as was suggested just now, to give the family a little more time to consider its position and return to the country from which it comes so that the children can be brought round to understanding what is going on? There is a great deal of evidence from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and others to show the huge effect on young children of suddenly being forced out of their homes in the middle of the night and compelled to go to a totally strange environment.
My Lords, I entirely take that point. The Government are trying to learn these lessons, and we are piloting this scheme precisely by going down the road of giving families more time and more options, particularly for voluntary departure. The scheme is absolutely in the spirit of the point mentioned by the noble Baroness.