UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 970-i

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE

HOME AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

 

The detention of children in the immigration service

 

Wednesday 16 September 2009

MR ALI SOYEI and MS AMANDA SHAH

MR DAVE WOOD

SIR AL AYNSLEY-GREEN

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 91

 

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 16 September 2009

Members present

Keith Vaz, in the Chair

Ms Karen Buck

Mrs Ann Cryer

David T C Davies

Mrs Janet Dean

Gwyn Prosser

Bob Russell

Mr David Winnick

________________

Witnesses: Mr Ali Soyei, The Children's Society, and Ms Amanda Shah, Bail for Immigration Detainees, gave evidence.

Q1 Chairman: Thank you very much. Could I, first of all, apologise for keeping you waiting longer than we had anticipated. We are most grateful to you for coming at very short notice. We are doing a very short inquiry into the issue of the detention of children in the immigration system. I would like to start, if I may (either of you can answer the question; we would prefer that not everyone answers every question, otherwise we will be here all morning and afternoon - maybe you can choose between yourselves), by asking both of you to tell us why do you oppose the detention of children?

Ms Shah: We are very clear that the problem with the detention of children is about policy itself, not necessarily just the manner in which it is being carried out. I say that to you for three reasons, the first of which is that we believe that the detention of children is damaging to children, and the children that we work with experience bedwetting, regressive daytime soiling, depression, weight loss and even self-harm as a result of their experience in detention. Parents tell us that the trauma that children experience as a result of what they have experienced having been arrested and taken into detention, and whilst in detention itself, stays with children for a long time after they are released. We also think that the detention of children is unnecessary. It is a policy that is not based on a firm evidential basis. There is no evidence to suggest that in order to maintain immigration control children have to be detained. There is no evidence that they systematically disappear, and I think that anybody with children will know that it is very difficult to pick them up and then disappear.

Q2 Chairman: Indeed. I think we all declare our interest; we all have children. Mr Soyei?

Mr Soyei: From the work we do we have evidence that children who enter detention are clearly harmed by that experience. I can give you a case study of a young boy who, prior to entering detention, was considered to be very engaging, motivated and, in the broadest of terms, full of life, but having experienced detention and being released into the community has now turned into a young, aggressive 8-year-old who has serious attachment problems. That is very harmful, and it is a worrying situation.

Q3 Mrs Cryer: In that case, what are your suggestions about bail? We are not just talking about children; presumably, we are talking about children with parents. Are we?

Mr Soyei: Yes.

Q4 Mrs Cryer: Sometimes are we talking about children who have been travelling alone and are being intercepted at airports? I am just not sure what area we are talking about. Certainly if there are children who are with parents, are you suggesting that the parents and children should be given bail? What are your suggestions? Do you know what is going on in other countries? What do they do in other countries where, perhaps, a family is intercepted at an airport without documentation? Do they find them homes, or do they give them bail? What is the situation?

Ms Shah: There are three groups of children who are affected by immigration detention: the first group are children who are detained with their family members and detained as a family unit. I think that is probably mostly what we are talking about today. You are quite right to say that there are other groups of children, one of which is unaccompanied minors who are wrongly assessed to be adults when they are really children and detained as adults when they are actually under 18.

Q5 David Davies: How do you know that?

Ms Shah: We have children who come to us who are in detention detained as adults who later, as a result of an age assessment, are found to be children and released as such. I think it is a real problem. I know the Committee has an interest in statistics; it is an area that I would urge you to pay some attention to because in terms of the statistics that are produced on that group of children - age-disputed minors - the picture is very muddied; we do not have a clear idea of the numbers. Where they are held and for how long is something that we feel needs to be produced. In terms of alternatives to detention, the presumption for families has to be liberty. That is what it says in the Home Office policy and it is what we would expect to be seen and documented before any family is taken into detention. Our experience of working with these families is that the documents that surround that decision to detain very rarely go through alternatives to detention, which could include things such as reporting requirements, residence restrictions and even monitoring. This exercise, to us, appears very much to be a tick-box exercise and is not properly considered. Overseas, you are quite right to flag, the situation is very different. I think, in terms of the Government's international peers, it is going to look at what is happening elsewhere, including in countries like Australia which has had a very harsh detention policy traditionally but has now moved to a position where no children are any longer detained.

Q6 Mrs Cryer: Just one more thing, which has been drawn to my attention, because we have done other inquiries and one was about people trafficking, and it was often children trafficking. I am sure that The Children's Society will be concerned about that. What about children who have been trafficked by a person, not their parent, who are being brought into this country for, for instance, benefit abuse or for use as slaves, virtually? What happens sometimes to those children is they are put into the care of a local authority and between their foster parents or institution and school they are kidnapped by the person trafficking them and they disappear. I am sure the Children's Society would be concerned about that. We have to be sure about the security of children, whether they are with their parents or completely alone.

Mr Soyei: Yes, you are right to suggest that we are concerned about that as an organisation. In the event that such cases were to come to the attention of the local authority, I do not think that placing them in detention is the solution. I do not think we can blame children and young people who have been subjected to either trafficking or smuggling for the failure of the mechanisms we have to protect them. I think, clearly, working on good procedures and protocols within children's services in the community is a better way of identifying those children and young people who have been subjected to trafficking or human smuggling.

Q7 Mrs Cryer: Are you going to make recommendations about this? I have a deep concern about children who are being trafficked. It may just be that the only secure way is to put them in a detention centre, so that they are not re-kidnapped by their traffickers.

Mr Soyei: I totally disagree with that. I think it is more important ----

Q8 Mrs Cryer: Are you going to make recommendations?

Mr Soyei: We are happy to look at that as an organisation, and we have, in the past, contributed to various consultations on children who have been subjected to trafficking or who are at risk to trafficking. I am happy to look at that in conjunction with my colleagues in the organisation.

Q9 David Davies: According to the charity Missing People, thousands of children actually go missing in the UK each year. You said that very few do it and it is very hard to do. The official statistics would suggest otherwise; thousands of children go missing each year. We know that children are going missing from care homes and are apparently picked up by pimps from care homes which have no security whatsoever. If we implemented your recommendation we are going to put children at risk. Is it not rather too late to say afterwards: "We will try and do something about it", when every time you get it wrong a child is sold into slavery and is lost to the world?

Mr Soyei: I still maintain that placing those children who may be considered in the eyes of an authority to have been trafficked or at risk to further exploitation in detention is not the best way to support them.

Q10 David Davies: You would rather they were sold off as prostitutes?

Mr Soyei: Certainly not.

Q11 David Davies: What would you like then?

Mr Soyei: I certainly think that we can work on improving protocols between social services in the community, immigration staff ----

Q12 David Davies: What is your practical solution? Protocols are great, but what is your practical solution when you are faced with an option between a secure environment, with a wall to keep people out as much as to stop them from getting out, or a care home with no security whatsoever? You are saying you would prefer the care home?

Mr Soyei: Invest in the care home and make it a safe house.

David Davies: It cannot be, because care home staff are not legally allowed to prevent children from leaving.

Chairman: Thank you.

Q13 Bob Russell: Chairman, I think we have to accept we live in an evil world and we have a lot of evil people out there. As part of the preparations for today's hearing the briefing we were given gave us a very excellent article from Karen McVeigh in The Guardian a little more than a fortnight ago, where reference is made to 470 children detained with their families. That is one issue. Following Mrs Cryer's point and, indeed, Mr Davies' point, some of those children, I assume, are not with their families; they are on their own. With the greatest respect, there has to be a realisation that we are talking about children who are on their own and children who are with their families, so I will just concentrate on the children with their families because my colleagues have done children alone. In relation to children with families, according to The Guardian, the UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children. Is that correct?

Ms Shah: The Guardian article highlighted statistics that came out at the end of August, which, for the first time, gave us a more comprehensive picture of this group of children, which are children detained with their families. In terms of comparators with our European peers, you could, for example, look at a country like Sweden, which has a very low rate of detention but one of the highest rates of voluntary return in Europe. If you combine the experience of countries such as Sweden and Australia - and there are even moves in America in the last few weeks to move away from the detention of children with families - it points to a movement of passage of our international peers towards alternatives to detention being the norm, and we would like to see the Government making sure that it is part of that process.

Q14 Bob Russell: You have, clearly, looked at the official statistics and comparisons with other countries. Perhaps I ought to know this answer but I am going to put the question in any event: do the official figures give a breakdown of children in detention who are with one or both parents and, secondly, those who are children alone? We have done in inquiry into people trafficking and the awful things that go with that, and that is one of the most distressing things I think I have ever come across as a Parliamentarian - the people trafficking and, particularly, the children.

Ms Shah: The figures that were quoted in The Guardian and were released by UKBA relate to children who are detained with their families. I absolutely hear the Members' concerns about single children, and having a concentrated look at the statistics that should be produced on unaccompanied children that end up in detention would be a good way to take that forward.

Bob Russell: Chairman, I would suggest that this Committee needs to establish how many children are detained with one or more parents and those who are there alone.

Chairman: We hope to do so when UKBA come to give evidence immediately after you. We will get those figures for you. Thank you, Mr Russell.

Q15 Gwyn Prosser: In the exchange you had with Mr Davies earlier on, in my view, Mr Davies might have had a point if the reason, the motivation, for detaining children was to protect them from abuse and absconding or being kidnapped. However, is it not the case that the people you are talking about, and the core of this inquiry, are the people who the Border Agency hold in custody for short periods, limited by statute, prior to removal or because they are thought to be likely to abscond as a family? We are not talking here about the UKBA being child protectors and keeping people in custody to keep others out. Is that not the case?

Ms Shah: That is the case, and what we are talking about here is children who are detained as part of a family unit. One of the things that the statistics did reveal was that the myth that children with families are only detained for short periods of time is not correct. What the statistics did show was that on the snapshot date, which was 30 June 2009, nearly one in three of those children spent more than a month in detention, which is contrary to government policy which says that children should only be in detention for the shortest period possible.

Mr Soyei: I would like to add, as well, that we have evidence from our work with children and families in Yarls Wood that we supported 25 families between February and July this year. The average length of detention for those families was six weeks, and 60% of those families were eventually returned to the community. So the question around whether they have been detained for the purpose of removal for a short period of time comes into question. It is something that really needs to be looked at.

Q16 Gwyn Prosser: We will ask the UKBA about that matter. Some 18 months ago Liam Byrne, as Home Office Minister, said that he was hopeful that we can avoid detaining children who are waiting removal in most cases, and today he said: "I can announce that we will be piloting an alternative to detention". What progress has been made since then?

Ms Shah: There has been an alternative to the detention pilot that was piloted in Millbank in Kent. You may have seen some of the coverage around that pilot. I think there were several problems identified with that pilot and, in the end, I do not think it worked, either for the families that were involved, for the advocates of those families or for government. I think it is very important that the lessons that were learned from those pilots are fed into a pilot that is happening at the moment in Glasgow, which started very recently, which, again, is looking to pilot an alternative to detention for children and families.

Q17 Gwyn Prosser: So since the announcement of a possible policy change no actual change has taken place?

Ms Shah: The reality is that as the figures show, nearly 1,000 children a year remain in detention.

Q18 David Davies: I suppose we would like to know how UKBA can improve things, but is it not basically the case that if people come over here making bogus claims with children, that they have to be sent back? Otherwise we do not have an immigration policy, and what we ultimately do is we say: "Anyone who can get into this country with a child can stay here". Following on from that, what we will see is a huge increase in people risking their lives, paying people traffickers and smugglers to take them in with children, risking those children's lives as well. Is there not a law of unforeseen consequences here which you are not willing to look at? You are taking a very nice view - "Let's not lock up any children" - without looking at the far-reaching consequences, which are a collapse of immigration policy and lots of children risking their lives needlessly to come here.

Mr Soyei: We have no problem with the Government managing migration, and we have no major issue with the entire principle of removal; our problem is with using detention as part of that process.

Q19 David Davies: Why not support an end to the appeals process which allows lawyers to make money by endlessly dragging out the inevitable by putting in one ridiculous appeal after another at our expense?

Ms Shah: If we are talking about expenses, the fact is it costs 130 a day to keep a person in detention. So if, as Ali has just explained, the average period of time for families we are working with at the moment is six weeks, for a family of four that is over 20,000. This is on the basis of no evidence that in order to maintain immigration control it is necessary to detain these families.

Q20 David Davies: You mentioned Sweden and how they are successful in a voluntary approach. Would it not be simply better, if it does not already happen, to say to somebody: "Instead of going into detention we will give a 'plane ticket right away to go back to your country of origin." Would that not be the best solution all round for all of us?

Ms Shah: One of the problems that was highlighted in the statistics in that regard is that, given that 50% of children go on to be released back into the community, it has highlighted some problems in terms of policies that are supposed to be in place by UKBA when people are taken into detention, which is not happening in practice, including that people are taken into detention when they have ongoing asylum and immigration applications which would make their removal from the country unlawful.

Q21 David Davies: What do you think, Mr Soyei? If it was a voluntary case - you talk about voluntary cases - why not say: "Look, you have got a straightforward choice here: a 'plane ticket or detention"? Would that not be the fairest thing and a good idea for UKBA - an improvement, in fact? It would save us a bit of money and solve the problem.

Mr Soyei: It may save UKBA, or the Government, a bit of money but I am not sure whether it will actually solve the problem, because I think what we have certainly learnt from the experiences of our families is an actual lack of faith in the whole process, and at the point at which they are picked up, as well, for detention, there is usually a failure to discuss alternatives with them. I know of a family where the mother had actually put in an appeal, she had not been informed about the outcome of her appeal, she complied with the normal reporting requirements and, as usual, she just got picked up when she was there, even though her daughter was in school, and taken into detention. She was reunited with her daughter two days later, and it was only at that point that removal directions were sent, only to be revoked two days later and then released into the community. A lot of this can be resolved by taking a closer look at the asylum process itself, the immigration process, to give people a fairer chance and to be a bit more transparent in dealings with families as well.

Q22 Mrs Dean: Can you tell us, in your experience, how much effort is put in by the Border Agency, both in ensuring the welfare and the wellbeing of the child whilst in detention but, also, when the child is released back into the community? You said a large percentage are released back into the community; how much support is given by the UKBA to ensure the safety and the rehabilitation of the child when it goes back into the community?

Mr Soyei: Our experience is that we know the UK Border Agency have signed up to the recent introduction of section 11 of the Children's Act, which is about promoting the safeguarding and welfare of children generally and specifically those in detention. We do know that there is a social work team based in Yarls Wood which has a primary task to undertake assessments on behalf of the UKBA. On release it may depend on what the issues are. To UKBA's credit, I do know of a case where safeguarding issues were identified in relation to a child whilst in detention, and on release of that child efforts were made to engage children's services in the community to continue the required intervention. I also know, in relation to that specific case, that UKBA has stated too that children's services are involved in this child protection intervention and that before they pursue removal they will engage with children's services to consider whether it is appropriate. That is just one case. I think there are other examples where we would hope that UKBA could promote and do a bit more in terms of their responsibility to implement section 11 of the Children's Act.

Ms Shah: The forthcoming change to the section 11 duty, which is going to place an obligation to safeguard the welfare of children on UKBA, and, also, the removal of the Government's reservation last year - the immigration reservations to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - are both to be welcomed; they are definitely steps in the right direction. In terms of families' experiences on the ground, that rhetoric has yet to be translated into reality, and I think families will see very little difference in terms of how they are treated. We would say that the logical next best step would be for detention to be ended.

Q23 Mrs Dean: In practical terms, in relation to those who are released into the community, how many times do families ever find themselves homeless? What help and support is provided for those families?

Mr Soyei: Help and support is provided generally by other voluntary organisations, in terms of accessing information and re-engaging with the wider asylum system and support services available, but it is dependent on communication between UKBA, the implementing partners, the centre management, and relevant organisations who are in position. It is not unusual to find a family that has been released, possibly around four or five o'clock, having to make their way back to the north east of England and, unaware of the train times, have ended up sleeping on the platform in Birmingham train station on the way back to the North East, just because of the time at which they have been released, and appropriate individuals have not been informed. It is also not unusual for people to arrive back to where they stayed prior to detention to find all the doors locked, because the housing providers have not been informed that they have been released and they should be given access back. Again, they end up either staying on the streets or sofa-surfing, and that can go on for a week or so, and that does have a great impact on the welfare of the children in those circumstances.

Chairman: Ms Shah, Mr Soyei, thank you very much for giving evidence. Just in terms of what Mr Davies was saying, we have published a fairly lengthy report into human trafficking. We are concerned about this aspect - the number of children who come from abroad and who then either leave children's homes or are out and about who can be the subject of abuse. While, of course, accepting your evidence to this Committee, I would commend to you the opportunity of reading that particular report. If you would like us to send it to you, the Clerk will send it to you as well. Thank you very much.

Witness: Mr Dave Wood, Strategic Director, Criminality and Detention, UKBA, gave evidence.

Q24 Chairman: Mr Wood, may I thank you very much come for coming to give evidence today. It was at very short notice and I appreciate the fact that you have flown back from your holiday just to be present at this session and the Committee is extremely grateful for this. We are meeting in September and it is good that you have been able to come.

Mr Wood: This is a very important subject to us.

Q25 Chairman: It is and we are very grateful to you for coming here. Why are children detained under the immigration system, because they have not done anything wrong, have they?

Mr Wood: No, absolutely, they have done nothing wrong. I think the earlier debate is relevant to what I am about to say. In reality we only detain children in family units. I can deal with very short-term detention in other circumstances. We detain families because these are families who have no right to be in the United Kingdom. These are people whose appeals have expired and who have been judged by tribunals to have no right to remain in the United Kingdom. These will be families whom we have engaged with the whole period of time through the process, encouraging them and letting them know that at the end of the process they have to leave the United Kingdom if they are judged to be here unlawfully. Then we ask the people to go voluntarily. The families we detain are those who refuse to leave the United Kingdom, those who have not left voluntarily and that is why we detain them. I do feel that our immigration policy would be in difficulty if we did not have that ability to detain them because it would act as a significant magnet and pull to families from abroad to come to the United Kingdom because, in effect, once they got here they could just say, "I am not going." Whilst issues are raised about absconding, that is not our biggest issue. It does happen but it is not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond. What we get to is saying to the family, "You have no right now to be in the United Kingdom, you have to leave," and then they refuse, so the only way we can enforce that is by detaining them. When we detain families we detain them to remove only. When we detain families it is our expectation that they will be there less than a week. The reasons that some end up there longer is they create new judicial reviews and other legal processes, a lot of which are spurious, the NAO found earlier this year, which would accord with our view. Over 90% of judicial reviews do not even get leave for hearing.

Q26 Chairman: Those are very, very important points and my colleagues will come back and ask you about them, but one of the concerns that I have - and it is an issue which has challenged the Committee for many years - is the issue of the backlog at UKBA. We questioned the Chief Executive about this. One of the problems about all these people in the country, especially those you have to detain with children, is that it takes so long to process their cases. If the system were quicker and the backlog were dealt with quicker they would get quicker results and therefore they would be more willing to accept that they have to leave the country. The fact is because it takes so long to process their cases, in some of the cases I have written about or other members of this Committee have written about, we have letters back from Lin Homer saying she will tell us the answer in 2011. You can understand the concern of this Committee when children are detained for such a long period of time bearing in mind the fact that it is an administrative issue. If you deal with the cases quicker at UKBA there would be quicker results and more people would be willing to leave. Do you accept that point?

Mr Wood: I do accept that point and you will be aware of course that we have conclusion rates which are far more ambitious. Our conclusion rate target by the end of this year is 75% of cases to be concluded within six months. We have a target going on beyond that to 90%. We are heading towards that target and we are confident that we will either get to it or very nearly by the end of this year. It is a very challenging target. We have a backlog of cases, as you rightly say, which are being dealt with separately, and we have a target to conclude those ---

Q27 Chairman: --- By 2011?

Mr Wood: Indeed, and that is a legacy issue that is difficult. We are working through those very fast but there is that legacy issue. Certainly what we have done is parked them in a sense in one place and are working legitimately on them. Current cases are being dealt with expeditiously for the very reasons you eloquently put.

Q28 Chairman: What worries me is that you are a very senior official from UKBA. Why is it that senior officials like yourself and Lin Homer when they come before this Committee do not just say, "Please can we have more resources. If we had more resources from the Treasury we would deal with the backlog and all these outstanding cases quickly and not in 12 months' time. We would give people the result and then they will just have to leave the country because they would have exhausted judicial review." They cannot get legal aid in many cases now. We know that there are solicitors out there who get involved right at the last minute in order to delay. We have all got big immigration caseloads. Why is that you do not have the confidence of coming to Parliament and saying, "Please can we have some more"?

Mr Wood: I suspect everyone could say that. We have put more resources into that area.

Q29 Chairman: Would you get into trouble if you said that?

Mr Wood: That is not the case at all, no. It is a case of managing the resources and training the resources. There are a whole lot of issues with more resources. We have diverted more resources this year into that particular area. It is subject to constant review and we have got challenging targets to meet, but the backlog issue is a legacy issue and it is a difficult issue for us.

Chairman: David Davies?

Q30 David Davies: Thank you for putting the Government's case so well, Mr Wood. Can I check something with you, the charities that we have heard from seem to think that people are not given the option to leave and that there is no voluntary element here, but you have been quite clear in saying that at the stage when they come into detention they have the option to leave voluntarily; is that correct?

Mr Wood: Absolutely they do but before we get to the stage of detention all the way through the process they have been asked to leave voluntarily.

Q31 David Davies: And we are willing to pay for the plane ticket?

Mr Wood: We are absolutely willing to pay for the plane ticket and some do go voluntarily. A large number do go voluntarily, precisely because if we did not ask anyone we would never have people go voluntarily.

Q32 David Davies: Really the decision is one for the family alone whether they want to go into detention. They have the option to go back at any time and it is they themselves who are choosing detention over deportation?

Mr Wood: I suppose I would put it slightly differently: they are forcing us to make that difficult decision, yes.

Q33 David Davies: What is the cost of keeping a family of four in detention, do you know?

Mr Wood: Our detention costs are about 120 a night per person. I do not say we have worked that out on a family basis. That would be on a single male basis.

Q34 David Davies: So probably it is slightly less than the cost of housing a family of four and continuing to provide them with benefits, so it is cheaper for the taxpayer than to continue to house someone in a house?

Mr Wood: Absolutely it is, yes, or housing someone in a hotel.

David Davies: That is very helpful, thank you.

Q35 Chairman: Do you have an overall cost per annum?

Mr Wood: Of the whole of our detention? I do not have it with me, Chairman. I can provide the cost of funding of Yarl's Wood per annum but I do not have those figures with me.

Q36 Chairman: Can you write to us and give us the overall cost?

Mr Wood: Yes, I can.

Chairman: That is very helpful. Bob Russell?

Q37 Bob Russell: Mr Wood, is the number of child immigrants increasing?

Mr Wood: I do not have that figure with me, I am afraid, Mr Russell. I do not know the answer to that.

Q38 Bob Russell: Is the length of time they are detained increasing?

Mr Wood: It is not increasing. Last year the average length detention for family units and for children in particular was 16 days. It is 15.58 days this year so far, so it is not much less but it is not increasing.

Q39 Mr Winnick: I take it that you do not have the figures, Mr Wood, for the children who have been detained in the last five years?

Mr Wood: I do not think I have quite got the last five years with me of numbers detained. No, I do not.

Q40 Mr Winnick: I am sure the Chairman would agree that the Committee would like those figures as soon as possible. You will write to us by the end of this week?

Mr Wood: Yes, I do not know whether I can do it in those timescales because some of this will have to be manually checked.

Q41 Mr Winnick: What timescale do you require?

Mr Wood: Probably three to four weeks, I would imagine. I think we would have to manually check.

Q42 Chairman: Would you write to us in 28 days?

Mr Wood: And if we can do it earlier we will.

Chairman: That would be very helpful if you could. Maybe we could say 21 days.

Q43 Mr Winnick: If you have not got the information now, would the letter also include the number of those detained as to children where the families were not deported and released back into the community?

Mr Wood: Yes, can I deal with that point because I think people get a false image of that. When we release children from detention back into the community it does not mean they have then got leave to remain in the United Kingdom. What tends to happen is that we detain families only at the stage where appeal rights have expired in order to remove them. Then there might be another judicial review or legal challenge and then we reassess their case as to should detention continue or not. In many cases it goes on to a longer legal process and we release the family. When that legal process is over we then re-detain and that is one of the problems of our statistics: we show numbers detained but there are duplicates in the sense of families detained twice. The fact that we release people from detention does not mean that we perhaps should not have detained them in the first place because a large number of those are ultimately removed.

Q44 Mr Winnick: If we could have as much of that information as possible in a letter. I wonder if I could put this question to you, Mr Wood: fair-minded people (and those who are not fair-minded would take a different view) will agree that you in carrying out your responsibilities for which you have been appointed and other colleagues in the Border Agency do not rub your hands with glee and say, "Oh marvellous, more children being detained." As I say, fair-minded people are hardly likely to come to that conclusion. It is an unfortunate step taken by the Border Agency. Do you recognise that there is a good deal of sensitivity amongst many people, including those who believe in the strictest form of immigration control, that nevertheless children who are totally innocent themselves, as we all agree, whatever their parent have done or not done, are being held at a very young and tender age in detention and about the possible psychological repercussions that could emerge in later years?

Mr Wood: Let me deal with that. First of all, I think fair-minded people would recognise that. This is a very difficult area of our work and we acknowledge that it is a controversial area of our policy. I have explained why we feel we have to do it. What I would say about the detention - and I would really encourage this group to visit Yarl's Wood - it is a family-friendly environment. There are locked doors on the outside, let us not escape that, so it is detention in that sense but it does not feel like a prison or anything like that inside. It is family-friendly in how the staff are dressed and how the regime is run there. It is quite different from that but, yes, it is a difficult, controversial area of our policy.

Chairman: Thank you very much. Ann Cryer?

Q45 Mrs Cryer: Mr Wood, I want to ask you three questions about the children who are being detained and the conditions that they are in and the care that they are given, but before I do that can I just clarify that you never take into the detention centres children who are picked up at an airport travelling alone due to the fact that they do not have adequate documentation?

Mr Wood: We do not take them to our removal centres. The only time we will detain children in the circumstances you have described is purely until social services can come and take control of them. That would be normally for a short time of hours. It could in exceptional circumstances be overnight. That is for us to inform social services and social workers to come to the place of detention, speak to the unaccompanied minor, and then take responsibility for that individual.

Q46 Mrs Cryer: So the social services who pick up those children are social services in the local authority adjacent to that detention centre; is that right?

Mr Wood: It would normally be the port rather than the detention centre.

Q47 Mrs Cryer: And can I also assume that the families who are detained with children are families who have been picked up at airports because they are travelling without adequate documentation, or they are families who have overstayed the limitations of their existing visa, or they are families who have failed in an appeal to be accepted as asylum seekers? Are those the three categories who are taken in, by and large?

Mr Wood: Yes, but they would have been caseworked first and we would be in a position to remove those people as far as we are concerned.

Q48 Mrs Cryer: But they fit into those three categories that I have just described?

Mr Wood: Yes.

Q49 Mrs Cryer: I have a list of three questions that I want to ask about the care of the children who are at the detention centres. The first is: are you addressing the mental and child health needs which were identified as a weakness in 2008? Has that been improved?

Mr Wood: Yes, it has been improved. I can go into the improvements if it helps you, but certainly we have mental health nurses there now 24 hours a day at Yarl's Wood. We have a specialist paediatric nurse there. Some of these things were in place before but we have reviewed and changed a lot of things. We are now subject to the Healthcare Commission and their regime, so there is a whole range of improvements we have made to Yarl's Wood.

Q50 Mrs Cryer: And there are checks in place?

Mr Wood: There are, absolutely.

Q51 Mrs Cryer: And you rarely, if ever, detain families for more than six weeks? I think that is what you said, and sometimes much less than that?

Mr Wood: Yes, the average detention is, as I say, just under 16 days for families, but 50% of our family cases are removed within a week and 70% within two weeks, so the vast majority go within that period of time.

Q52 Mrs Cryer: My second question more or less relates to what you have already said and that is improving the emotional and psychological care of the child whilst in detention. You just said that you have mental health nurses there.

Mr Wood: And we have counsellors there too. We have counselling services and counsellors as well as the mental health nurse.

Q53 Mrs Cryer: The other question is on transport facilities to and from detention centres. I am assuming that this is about taking children to and from school? Do the children go out to school?

Mr Wood: No, they do not. For those who require education there are education facilities there.

Q54 Mrs Cryer: So the movement of children from the detention centre to elsewhere I assume must be then taking them to perhaps a court or a tribunal?

Mr Wood: No, it would probably be to the airport, I would imagine. It could well be.

Mrs Cryer: Thank you.

Q55 Mrs Dean: Mr Wood, how many violations of the UKBA guidelines, particularly with regards to the use of force on child detainees, have been reported since the implementation of the new guidelines? Do you have that information?

Mr Wood: I am unaware of any reported cases. I would need to go back and check that is absolutely right. I am aware of what the 11 Million Report said, but it was what the children said and we did not have the opportunity to check those particular details. I am unaware of any reported violations. If there were - and I can find out easily enough and check for you - they would be investigated by our processes obviously.

Q56 Mrs Dean: Will you check that and let us know?

Mr Wood: I will check that.

Q57 Gwyn Prosser: Mr Wood, a number of the issues raised by my colleague Ann Cryer were part of the list of criticisms which the HMIC Inspectorate made of Yarl's Wood when they looked at Yarl's Wood last year. I think they were quite scathing they used the expression that Yarl's Wood itself was "hamstrung" by the Border Agency's view that because children were only held for a short, limited time then it was not really worth having educational or recreational facilities or making life a little bit more acceptable. You have told us to visit Yarl's Wood and I think the Chairman is looking into that matter. I have visited quite a number of these detention centres over the years and I have never found them at all welcoming or pleasant places to be and I am always very pleased to get out again, to be quite frank, and in my discussions with individual families it is very clear that the ones I have met were in great distress, and I do not think it was because they were meeting the Committee; I think it was because of their surroundings. Is that still the Border Agency's view that there is no need to provide any extra facilities for these children because on average they are only going to be here for a short time?

Mr Wood: No, that is not our view. In fact, we have opened a new school at Yarl's Wood which we have just built and I think we opened it this week with much better, improved facilities for the schooling of children. Clearly, as I have made clear in the evidence to this Committee, when we detain the children it is going to be for a short period of time but some end up staying there longer so we have to have those facilities. We have opened a new school and new facilities. I should have also made clear perhaps in response to the opening question that I was asked that we are actively pursuing alternatives to detention. This is not something that we enjoy and want to do. We have got the Scottish pilot running now and we have an early legal advice pilot starting soon in the West Midlands, so we are actively pursuing alternatives all the time. With all these alternatives, unless people voluntarily go we are left with what we do with the individuals. I think that is the problem which no-one really faces apart from we have to face. I am pleased to hear that you have visited some of our centres, not pleased to hear that you found them intimidating, but you would find Yarl's Wood quite different. I have visited every one of our centres, obviously, and you would find Yarl's Wood quite different from the others absolutely because it is there for detained families. Our family wing in Yarl's Wood is a family-friendly unit.

Q58 Gwyn Prosser: And what about the other criticisms of the Inspectorate about no facilities or special help for disabled children?

Mr Wood: Again we have made improvements to that and we do a full welfare assessment. We do a welfare check and assessment before they come to Yarl's Wood so that if there are children with those sorts of problems we can make arrangements to make sure we have the proper facilities, and we do welfare assessments when they arrive.

Q59 Gwyn Prosser: Finally from me: why is it that other European countries which have in some cases stricter immigration and asylum attitudes than us detain far fewer children and some never detain children? Why do we have to do it?

Mr Wood: I think if you go across Europe you will find have far more austere surroundings where they detain children and have a much worse record than us (if "worse" is the right word) and you get a mixed picture across Europe. The reality of it is that America, Canada and the major parts of Europe do detain children. Some of them detain children alone, which we do not do. We only ever detain children in family units. I think what we do compares favourably with Europe. I am not saying there is not a country in Europe that does things differently and we have heard a vote from one particular country this morning, but generally I think we compare quite favourably in our treatment of families and children compared to our European counterparts.

Q60 Chairman: Thank you very much. It goes without saying that you have tried very hard to find alternatives for detention that will meet your objectives and also ensure that the welfare of children is protected?

Mr Wood: Absolutely and the Scottish pilot has been running since June. Again, it is somewhere I have visited myself and it is working in partnership with other agencies and the Scottish Government and Glasgow Council. We have put all the lessons in from the pilot which did not succeed in Kent. We are optimistic that there will be great improvements.

Q61 Chairman: The pilot is on-going at the moment of course?

Mr Wood: It is on-going, yes.

Q62 Chairman: And costs what?

Mr Wood: That pilot in Scotland is costing 125,000 a year.

Q63 Chairman: And how many families has it helped so far?

Mr Wood: There have been 14 families referred to it and three families are currently going through the system. It can hold five at any one time, but hopefully that will give us ways of removing families short of detention and, if nothing else, will minimise the need for detention.

Q64 Chairman: Mr Prosser has suggested maybe we should go and visit the pilot as well as Yarl's Wood, or some will go to Yarl's Wood and some may go to visit the pilot.

Mr Wood: You would be really welcome. It is an impressive pilot and you will see the energy and effort that has gone into there to try to avoid detaining families.

Q65 Chairman: Indeed. Mr Wood, again we are most grateful to you for coming off holiday to be with us today. Mr Winnick has flagged up a number of points of information that we would very much like. If it is possible to let us have it in three weeks - and I know it is holiday season for some - we would be most grateful. If you could get it to us before that that would also be extreme helpful.

Mr Wood: We will provide it in the timescale that you have indicated or reasons why we cannot if there is a difficulty.

Q66 Chairman: And the next time you have your board meeting do not forget the backlog.

Mr Wood: I will not.

Chairman: Thank you very much.


Witness: Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Children's Commissioner for England, gave evidence.

Q67 Chairman: Thank you very much for coming to give evidence to this Committee. This is your second appearance since I have been Chairman of the Committee. You have heard the evidence that has been given so far. The Committee will ask you some questions. If you could be as brief as possible in the response I would be most grateful. We will be as brief as possible in the questions that we ask. Can I start by asking you what are the experiences so far of children who have been in detention? What have they said to you about their experiences?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: Thank you for that invitation to come today. Of course we have invested very substantial amounts of time and energy into this very issue as one of our major strategic programmes in the 11 Million Report. Of course we have published a few months ago the documentation of what children have said to us. This is evidence-based. One of the reasons for the delay in publication from the visits was that we worked very seriously with the UK Border Agency to validate every assertion and every allegation that was made by children. This really does document some of the lived experiences of children. That is a key point on my flag admittedly - listening to the voice of the child experiencing these circumstances. Adults will have a very different perspective of the environment to the child. So what we bring to the table in 11 Million is to listen to children and to record their observations, to validate them and to report them.

Q68 Chairman: How many children have you spoken to who have been in detention? Presumably you have to go to them, do you?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: The numbers is documented in the handbook, I cannot remember exactly what it was but I have now been to Yarl's Wood twice. The first time was four years ago and then last year, and I intend to go again in three weeks' time to follow up what has happened as a result of the report.

Q69 Chairman: Where are you going?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: To Yarl's Wood. In three weeks' time to see what changes have occurred since we published our report.

Q70 Chairman: Have you been over to the new pilot that has been set up in Glasgow?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: No, we have not done that yet. I think that is an extraordinarily important development and I welcome it. My challenge however is: is it really rigorous, is it academically focused, is the methodologically sound, can it be watertight to hard-nosed external review, and is it independent ? Because all of those challenges were the criticisms of the previous pilot run in Kent.

Q71 David Davies: Sir Al, is it the concept of detention which you object to or simply the standards in which people are kept when they are detained?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: Can I make my position absolutely clear, Mr Davies, I support government in the view that not everyone who comes here can stay; they have to go.

Q72 David Davies: So do you accept then at some point that a family - a mother, a father and two or three children - might have to be handcuffed and put on a plane and sent back because ultimately that is what enforcement can lead to? Do you accept and support that?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I think that removal is key to this and the process of removal needs to be examined. What I would say is that we are talking here about two sorts of families, in my view, facing deportation. The first are those who have been here for very many years. Many of the children have been born here and they see themselves as British. They have been embedded in schools and communities. You have referred to the backlog already, Chairman. This is a really, really important issue. I would like to know from the UKBA how many more cases are going to come through in the next three to five years.

Q73 David Davies: Not to be rude, and I fully agree with you that there is an issue around that, but what I am trying to get at here is do you, Sir Al, as somebody who has written this report condemning detention and the way in which people are detained, accept that at some point people have to be forcibly removed? We can argue about who they are but if you are going to have an immigration policy you accept that, do you, and that can lead to painful scenes of people being put into handcuffs if they will not go any other way and therefore be detained because that is what detention is?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: At some stage the removal you are talking about will have to take place. The detention before it ---

Q74 David Davies: I want to correct you here because legally if you physically stop somebody from going somewhere, if you so much as put handcuffs on them in the street or in their house, you are detaining them by law. If you put your hand on somebody and stop them from moving, you are detaining them, so at some point you accept that detention has to happen?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I think we should move on best European practice to minimising it as much as possible.

Q75 David Davies: Absolutely and I am sure we all agree, but you do accept that at some point it has to happen?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: Yes, at the end of the day there will be some families who have to be taken to the airport and put on a plane and sent back. But it is the experience before that that I am concerned about. I would also pick up your point, if I may, about practices across Europe. Adrian and I were in Brussels yesterday at an extremely important meeting about practices in different parts of Europe.

Q76 Chairman: Sir Al, could you tell us who Adrian is?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I beg your pardon. Adrian Matthews is my legal adviser and my head of asylum policy.

Q77 Chairman: Just for the record because there are many Adrians.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I would just make the point that some countries such as the Canary Islands and Italy are bombarded every day with large numbers of boat loads of people arriving, and those countries have a very, very fast turn around; they have to. We are not fortunately in that situation.

Q78 Chairman: You are comparing our immigration policy to the Canary Islands' as an equivalent country?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I certainly am not, I am just making a point, but for equivalent countries we should look to northern Europe and see what is happening in Belgium, Holland and Sweden. There are very good examples of excellent practice that we heard of only yesterday. May I just make a recommendation to the Committee that if you are taking this subject forward you might care to hear from people from different countries. We would be happy to provide you with contacts in order to do that.

Chairman: That is very helpful, thank you very much. Bob Russell?

Q79 Bob Russell: Sir Al, this is a nice easy question because you indicated that you are going to Yarl's Wood in three weeks' time, but my question remains for the record: since your report on Yarl's Wood came out in April 2009 has the UK Border Agency improved its facilities and systems, to which you will presumably say you will find out in three weeks' time?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: Exactly. What I would say however, Mr Russell, is that we have been engaged in a very good relationship with UKBA. The reason why our report was delayed for nine months was we did not go and shout from the rooftops immediately and launch our findings to the media. We worked with UKBA and with Serco over our conclusions and to find a way forward. We are very pleased that UKBA has just issued its response to our report, which you might care to see, and they accept the vast majority of the recommendations.

Q80 Bob Russell: Sir Al, as you have now expanded my very simple question into a long answer, when you do visit in three weeks' time will you provide this Committee with an answer to my question of has the UK Border Agency improved its facilities and systems because you will find out, will you not, through your visit?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: Yes, I will find out. I have to give credit to Yarl's Wood for the improvements over four years since the first time I went, which really was a prison, and now things are better, they do have staff, they do have more child-friendly approaches and I celebrate that. I still think that there may be some way to go but we will find out and we will send you our report as soon as we have it.

Bob Russell: Thank you very much.

Q81 Gwyn Prosser: Sir Al, you will have heard from earlier witnesses from the Border Agency that one of the reasons for the extension of detention is that families will make a last minute tier of appeals and that means they have to hold them until that appeal is heard. You might not be the person to ask this but have you got a feel from your inquiry as to how many of these appeals turn out to be successful appeals to the family court?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I am sorry, I cannot give that information, but what I would say is the fact that there are so many appeals and the fact that so many people are released from detention must indicate some serious inefficiencies in preparation before detention. Why is it that so many children are being released? We need to examine that and find out more about it. That leads to the concept of community engagement. What is coming through loudly and clearly from Europe, in my view, where it works very well, is frontloading right upfront, the very earliest times that people come into the country, to be told that they will not be allowed to stay here and to make preparations for that. I think the whole time for the process needs to be accelerated but against an issue of fairness. We have a proud tradition in this country of looking after genuine asylum seekers and I would hate to see that being demolished.

Q82 Gwyn Prosser: The anecdotal evidence that I have heard is that nearly all of the appeals fail so are looked upon by some as just a procedure to delay. On that basis, would you support the idea of doing away with that final tier of appeal? That might reduce the number of detentions of children.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: We would welcome very much a detailed analysis of each step of the milestones of the journey. For example, what happens at the first point of contact with families? How can we improve their knowledge and their real understanding they may be returned? What then happens in the assessment of their claim? What happens with the appeals? You are absolutely right that there may be futile cycles of unnecessary appeals. You have to understand that and try to circumvent that. Then finally the decision: surely, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to make this happen within weeks or months rather than years? So I think the whole efficiency of the process needs to be examined and we would welcome some serious scrutiny of that.

Q83 Mr Winnick: Going on from what Mr Russell asked you in your report about the arrest and detention of children, one of the main criticisms which you have made in that report is that arrest teams were not complying fully with current guidelines that would minimise the distress and anxiety of children and their families during the process. What do you say about that now? Is any improvement in that respect going on as far as you know?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I hope to give you a straight answer to that after our visit in three weeks' time. What I can tell you is that the UKBA has listened very seriously to that challenge and they have introduced new training programme for the officers engaged in the arrest process. We would like to hear from the families themselves, and especially children, whether they are still experiencing what we reported in our report.

Q84 Mr Winnick: Would it not be useful that as long as this position continues, and I suppose it will continue for all the reasons we have heard today, and the majority of children are under 11 apparently who are being detained, if the Border Agency are so willing for there to be a closer working relationship between your work as the Children's Commission so that not occasionally but almost on a weekly basis you could see what is happening and make recommendations accordingly?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: Yes, I think that is a really important point. We have to be opportunistic in how we can use our precious resources. These are very time and labour-intensive visits we will make to Yarl's Wood. It is not just a question of arriving for a morning. We go into a detailed analysis of what is actually happening, so we would welcome that. May I also say that we would welcome very much an opportunity for key stakeholders, including the UKBA and some of the voluntary organisations and ourselves, to sit down and look at these milestones of the process and just see how they can be achieved, bringing on board colleagues from Europe. Yesterday this event in Brussels was amazing. It was the first time that many senior officials had met together with NGOs and with us. I would like to see that replicated so that we get some common cross-party ground on how we actually address this difficult issue.

Q85 Mr Winnick: You heard the first witnesses from Bail for Immigration Detainees, who we listened to with much interest, as indeed we listen to all our witnesses. Do you have contact with them?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: Yes, we do indeed and we work very closely in a consortium with other colleagues that you saw here this morning so it is a real partnership.

Q86 Mr Winnick: Because of their involvement and understandable concern.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I would just make the point that we are independent. We are trying very hard to be impartial, objective and independent, above all, listening to the views of children. That is what we bring to the table.

Q87 Chairman: And all the alternatives to detention are explored by you?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I think this is a really important issue. We heard just now quite rightly about the pilot in Glasgow. I welcome that although I still have some challenges about its robustness and its experimental design. I think we can also learn from Australia which, as we heard from one of your first witnesses, had a very punitive regimen for detaining families. I am going to Australia in three weeks' time to see for myself what is going on there and I can give you some context when I come back. This is a huge change in government policy to stop detention. You might like to go to Australia yourselves or at least hear from them as to what is going on. I do think there are important lessons we can learn by seriously listening to other countries.

Q88 Chairman: Since you are before the Committee today I am sure you have been following the controversy about the new vetting arrangements that the Government has introduced and the decision by the Education Secretary to review those proceedings. Are you satisfied with what is now being proposed?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I think the review is welcome because of the huge public concern over perhaps some misperceptions of what this programme is all about. We have to educate the public on the importance of safeguarding children, but, for goodness sake, let us not go overboard and deny parents who are doing a good job the opportunity to contribute to children's lives. This is the balance we have to strike and it is a very difficult one.

Q89 Chairman: How long do you think this review process is going to last?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: I have no insight into that.

Q90 Chairman: Sir Al, thank you very much for coming in. As always, you have been extremely helpful. I know that you have a lot of plans to visit various organisations. Perhaps would like to update the Committee after your visits. I am sure that it would be very helpful.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: We would be delighted to give you contacts. You were talking about trafficked children. We heard a fantastic example yesterday of what is happening in Holland, the Tulip programme, and we can send you details of that.

Q91 Chairman: What is happening there?

Sir Al Aynsley-Green: They recognise the staggering burden of trafficked children in Europe and particularly in the Netherlands and they have a programme of proactively engaging with these young people as soon as they set foot in the Netherlands. They are kept not in prison in detention but in secure accommodation where they are monitored and supported, for example going to school they are escorted to school. Recognising that many Nigerian girls want to come to Holland to become prostitutes because they can generate income for their families, they have to be dissuaded of this. With this approach we were told yesterday that there have been some large numbers of traffickers who have been arrested and the systems closed down because of the engagement of the authorities in this way with these vulnerable young people, a model I think we should explore.

Chairman: That is very helpful. As you know, the Committee has published a very lengthy report into human trafficking and we will return to that subject in the future. Sir Al, thank you very much for coming today. Thus ends the session.