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Westminster Hall

Thursday 17 June 2010

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

Alternatives to Child Detention

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Goodwill.)

2.30 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I am delighted to have the opportunity today to draw attention to the issue of children in immigration detention. The UK's policy of detaining children with families in order to effect their removal from the UK is an area of long-standing concern for many organisations that take an interest in immigration and asylum, and for organisations that work on behalf of children. Those concerns are significant, and the Government have, very early on, set out their commitment to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. We want to replace the current system with something that ensures that families with no right to be in this country return in a more dignified manner.

To help bring that about, the UK Border Agency is leading a comprehensive review of present practice on the detention of children. It will look at the actual levels and at how to prevent such detention by improving the current voluntary return process. The review will also consider good practice in other countries, and will look at how a new family removals process can be established that protects the welfare of children and ensures the return of those with no right to remain in the UK. It will come as no surprise to you or to the Chamber, Mr Weir, that in the current climate the review will also have to include value for money as part of its remit.

The review has already begun and its phase of collecting views and submissions will run until 1 July. It will take in the views of a wide range of partners, experts and organisations that represent the interests of children to create viable long-term solutions. Earlier this week, I went to Glasgow to discuss the matter with many voluntary groups. They made extremely useful inputs to the review, so we will be repeating those meetings in all regions and in other countries of the UK over the next few weeks.

The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund is helping the review by co-chairing a working group made up of a range of non-governmental organisations, and I am grateful to the fund for agreeing to do that. We are seeking to identify how the UK Border Agency can fulfil its role while taking the right account of children's safety and welfare. We are carrying out the review as fast as humanly possible, so that the detention of children for immigration purposes can end and a practical alternative be put in its place.

I should emphasise that the UK Border Agency is fully determined to replace the current system with something more humane, without compromising on the removal of people who have no right to remain in the UK. We are talking about alternatives to detention and not about ending removals. Until the review is completed,
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current policies will remain in place, with one exception. As Members will know, the detention of children overnight at Dungavel immigration removal centre in Scotland has been ended as a precursor to such a practice ending across the UK. Currently, a very small number of children-fewer than five-are being held in immigration detention, but before we close Yarl's Wood for the detention of families we need to find effective alternatives.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab) rose-

Damian Green: I will of course give way to the newly elected Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

Keith Vaz: I thank the Minister very much for letting me intervene. I welcome this review, which is very much in keeping with the report the Select Committee produced last November. One of the recommendations was for the then Government-clearly, it is now for the new Government-to look at the role of local authorities. Will he confirm that local authorities will be consulted? The Committee was concerned that councils were sometimes not aware of children in their jurisdiction, and that that led to some children absconding and councils simply not being aware that they had gone.

Damian Green: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I take the opportunity formally to congratulate him on his election-his reappointment, rather-as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I can do so with a due degree of objectivity because I was not allowed to vote in the election, so he can neither thank nor blame me. I am sure we will have many constructive exchanges in the coming years.

To address the right hon. Gentleman's point, the simple answer is yes. I mentioned earlier that I had had a meeting in Glasgow at which the city council played a significant, helpful and constructive role. The purpose of the consultation is for it to be as widespread as possible. As he said, local authorities will have statutory responsibilities for such children and will therefore have views about how best we can and should proceed, so I will very much welcome their input into proceedings.

The challenge is to develop a new approach to family removals that remains cost-effective and delivers the return of those who have no right to remain in the UK. I hope I will not be constraining the review if I identify some of the factors involved; indeed, I hope this will help those who wish to contribute. It is already clear from the initial stages of the review that there is not a single, simple remedy: it is not just about ending detention at the stroke of a pen. There may have to be-I think there will have to be-a number of changes at different points in the system, each contributing to the overall aim. Clearly, there is a need to achieve faster and better decision making on family asylum cases; we are already taking forward work on that. We are told there is a need for greater confidence in the initial decision that is made in asylum cases. I take on board that message; indeed, I may even have transmitted that message to Government in the past.

In a recent report, the UK Border Agency's independent chief inspector, John Vine, commented favourably on the commitment to quality, and the UK is felt by many countries to have good systems in this regard. Members
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may know that in 2007, the provision of early legal advice was piloted in Solihull, in the west midlands, to test whether collaboration between the legal representative and the UK Border Agency decision-maker led to better information at the initial decision-making stage, so that better quality decisions could be reached. The findings were unclear, so we are working with the Legal Services Commission and key asylum partners to test those principles across an entire region of the UK Border Agency. It is called the early legal advice project, and it is an example of collaborative working and trying new things that I hope will characterise this area of alternatives to detention for families.

Another thing to consider is the need for better contact management and more active discussion of a family's options if their claim is rejected and their right to appeal a decision has been exhausted. Discussions with a family might need to be backed up by improved support from NGOs, partners and other workers. The options open to families at present include some very generous assisted return packages, but the take-up rate for families is low compared with that for single asylum seekers. There is, therefore, a need for better marketing of those assisted return offers. Marketing may sound like an odd word in this context, but I use it because we should not be forcing the take-up of such offers. Better explanation and promotion of the offers is clearly needed; they are real offers to provide help and assistance when all the other options have been exhausted. To illustrate one apparently small but important point, the assistance includes help with excess baggage so that families can take with them belongings purchased in the UK. They would not be returning home empty-handed, and would have more to show for their migration journey and for their time in the UK.

I think that everyone involved would also like to see a clearer and more evenly managed process after applications and claims to remain have been turned down. The starting point-and what I hope will become the standard-would be a much more clearly identifiable transition from a voluntary departure to an enforcement approach that is shaped by the family's own approach to their situation. The UK Border Agency would therefore set removal directions while the family is in the community, giving the family time to submit further representations and to apply for a judicial review if they wish to do so, as well as giving them time to make plans for their return. The arrangements would place a greater emphasis on self check-in or escorting to the airport. That approach, which already exists but possibly in a less clear way than it ought to, gives families every chance to comply with the need to return home without enforcement action. Making it much clearer to families-and their helpers-where they stand at this stage of the process seems to me to be necessary.

Other changes to processes may be called for, but inevitably some families who have no justification to remain in the UK will always refuse to leave voluntarily, despite all the encouragement we give them to do so. A changed approach should, and I hope would, minimise the number of those families, but there will remain difficult cases where solutions have to be found and where enforced removals are likely to continue. That approach could involve separating different members of
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a family and reuniting them before departure, so that some family members stay in the accommodation they are used to. However, I recognise that that approach would be hugely contentious and has its own practical difficulties. Therefore, in some cases we may still have to have recourse to holding families for a short period before removal-where keeping the family together is seen as being in the best interests of the children, which of course must be the paramount concern.

I hope it will not come to that. The Government and the UK Border Agency would much prefer that families who do not require humanitarian protection or refugee protection return to their home countries voluntarily. That is a responsible approach in a world where the number of people who choose to live in another country, for a variety of reasons, is continually expanding. Not everyone's journey will be a success in economic terms; not everyone's journey will be lawful. We believe that the Government should respond in a responsible, fair, dignified and humane way to this reality.

Keith Vaz: I thank the Minister for giving way to me for a second time. Will he comment on the report in The Guardian today that the Government are considering a reintegration centre-basically, a detention centre-of some kind in Afghanistan for families who are due to be removed from this country? Is that report correct, or wrong?

Damian Green: I would always hesitate to describe a report in The Guardian as being completely accurate. The proposed centre in Afghanistan is not particularly a British Government project; indeed, the previous Government raised this idea with other European Governments and with international agencies. The proposed centre's purpose is, effectively, to have a retraining centre-a re-entry centre-in Afghanistan, which the right hon. Gentleman will know is the source of many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this country, so that there is something for those children to go back to that will enable them to lead a better life in Afghanistan. I suspect he agrees with me that it would be much better for those young men to have a decent life and some hope in life in their own country. If they can have those things, that will stop many of them making dangerous-in some cases, sadly, fatal-journeys halfway across the world to try to reach Britain or other European countries.

So the basis of the report in The Guardian, for all that I said in my initial response to the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, is true, but it is being presented in a luridly and unfairly hostile light. The centre is an effort to help people. I suspect that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the Opposition spokesperson, will agree with that, because she was in government when the then Government originally suggested this process. It is a constructive and creative response to the problem of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and to present it in any other light is straightforwardly unfair. It is a constructive idea and I hope it comes to fruition. The tender for the operation is being examined, and we hope to make an announcement in the next few months about what will happen next.

This is a real, worldwide problem and as I was saying, we believe that the Government should respond in a responsible, fair, dignified and humane way to the reality of what is happening around the world today. The
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review into ending the immigration detention of children is an important part of that. Obviously, we will not take any firm decisions until the review has completed its work and we have taken into account the views that are put to us. I hope that during this debate, more ideas will be put forward that the Government can feed into the review, which may therefore give us what we all want to see: a fairer and more humane system that ends the system of detaining children for immigration purposes in this country.

2.45 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) on his appointment as Minister for Immigration. I attended many debates with him in his Opposition capacity, but he has finally made it and now has the opportunity to put into practice all the good proposals for which he argued so strongly as the Opposition spokesperson.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for all the work that she did as an Immigration Minister in the last Government. She was always very firm in defence of the Government's policy, but she was also very willing to listen to Members of this House when they raised matters of concern with her. I am glad that she has retained her position as the Labour party's spokesperson on immigration in opposition, because of course she knows everything-where all the bodies have been buried, figuratively speaking.

I welcome most warmly the Government's decision to conduct a review of the whole question of the detention of children in the immigration system. It may well be that during the general election campaign, the Minister read the reports of the Home Affairs Committee. If so, he will have seen our report published on 24 November 2009, "The Detention of Children in the Immigration System". In a sense, he has prefaced that report in the comments that he has made today. He has also rehearsed some of the arguments that are used for keeping children in detention, while rejecting those arguments. Of course, one cannot prejudge the outcome of a review, but I would be most surprised if the Government, having begun a review on this very important subject, came to the conclusion that everything was okay as far as the detention of children in the immigration system was concerned.

Nearly 1,000 children a year are detained in the UKBA's immigration detention centres. On average, such children spend more than a fortnight-15.58 days-in detention, but detention for up to 61 days is not uncommon. On 30 June 2009-the last date for which the Home Affairs Committee had information on children in detention-10 of the 35 children in detention at that time had been held for between 29 and 61 days. The Committee noted that the cost of keeping a person in detention was £130 a day; therefore, keeping a family of four in detention for between four and eight weeks costs more than £20,000.

During our very brief inquiry into this area, Members of the Committee visited Yarl's Wood. We felt that there must be an alternative that can be used to deal with the Government's proper function, which is to ensure that those who have lost their immigration cases and who have not been granted leave to remain in this
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country, either as asylum seekers or in any other context, are removed. I think that all of us, on both sides of the House, accept that there cannot be an indefinite right for people to stay here after all the legal processes have been exhausted. What we must find is a humane way to deal with families, particularly children, who are kept in detention before their removal.

We went to Yarl's Wood after hearing serious allegations about its operation, and what we found was a much more humane regime. Ultimately, of course, Yarl's Wood remains a prison; one cannot walk in and out without being checked through. When the Select Committee arrived, we produced all our identification and were put through those checks. I am not sure whether the Minister has had an opportunity to visit since taking up his office; I am sure that the shadow Minister visited at some stage. Some the reports of conditions in Yarl's Wood were lurid, and it may well have been like that in the past, but certainly nothing like that was obvious to us when we visited. The staff made an effort to accommodate families and children. We saw an impressive nursery school that had been built. It did not deal with anyone over the age of 10; it dealt with young children.

Unfortunately, our visit was somewhat marred by the Home Office officials' terrible anxiety about the Select Committee visit. They tried hard to keep us away from the people being detained there, which was totally unnecessary. The point of Members of Parliament visiting an institution such as Yarl's Wood is to ensure that we speak to the people there about their circumstances. What we found was that people were more anxious about the progress of their immigration case than about any of the ways and means by which they were detained I hope that, even before the review is continued, the Minister will take on board the fact that people in detention need access to proper and appropriate legal and immigration advice. I left the detention centre with about five or six cases, which I immediately passed on to the relevant constituency MPs.

It was depressing to see children being kept in such circumstances. Of course the Serco staff did their best to ensure that they were kept happy-there was a little shop, for example. We talked to a couple of the kids about what it was like being there. Though it is acceptable for a very short period, it is still a prison, it is still detention and their freedom is still restricted. The review is therefore timely and important, and I hope that it will be concluded as quickly as possible. As I missed the first few words of the Minister's opening remarks, I am not sure whether he has a timetable. The Government are undertaking a lot of reviews, and although I do not hold that against them-any new Government want to review everything that happened before-we need timetables. Under the current system, however, it is important that people should be clear where they stand as far as their future is concerned.

I raised with the Minister the question of the local authorities' involvement. We took evidence from the London borough of Hillingdon, because it contains Harmondsworth centre and Heathrow airport-those put into detention after coming off a plane and those about to be removed are held in close proximity to airports. One of the Select Committee's recommendations was that the Government's future building programmes should take proximity to airports into consideration. We were concerned to find that the local authority did
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not seem to know how many children were being detained and that it was not notified when children left detention. That is why we recommended that local authorities should be informed every seven days of how many children are being detained in their area. That would be quite a simple process for UKBA, so it is surprising that those facts and figures are not available. I hope that, in the interim-before the review is published-we will look at what we can do to get that information to local authorities. That must be easy for UKBA to do, so I hope that it will be done.

I do not want to detain the House long, given that the Government seem to be doing everything that the Select Committee asked them to do. My final point is a general one to which I will keep returning as long as I occupy the Chair of the Select Committee. I want to be fair to this Government as I was fair to the last one, and the former Minister will remember that on every occasion when we discussed immigration, I raised the same issue: the state of the backlog in the administration of the Home Office.

I see that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) is here today. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should move the Home Office away from Croydon, as I am sure that a lot of his constituents work there and that Lunar house and all those other fine buildings contribute greatly to Croydon's economy. However, it is not acceptable for us to go on as though the backlog will only be here until next year. The Select Committee is due a letter from Lin Homer setting out the state of the backlog, and of course progress has been made in the past 13 years, but I asked the then Minister for Borders and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Mr Woolas), whether he would like to be the first Immigration Minister in history to leave office having cleared the backlog. For as long as I have been a Member of Parliament-23 years now-there has always been a backlog. When I was first elected, there were sacks of unopened letters in Lunar house, simply because the volume of correspondence was so great.

I know that the Minister has written to right hon. and hon. Members about how we deal with constituency cases. Looking around the Chamber, I think that all of us here have a smattering of immigration cases, some more than others, and the shadow Minister is probably the biggest consumer of her former portfolio than anyone else here. It is all very well to tell Members to write to officials at Croydon and to come to Ministers only as a last resort, but we all get the same letters back, drafted by the same person. Miss Homer, as director general and chief executive, takes ultimate responsibility-this is not a personal issue; it is just business, as they said in "The Godfather"-but the fact is that all the letters are the same. We do not expect the Minister to draft his own letters, but we get the same information whether we write to Miss Homer or to him. UKBA keeps telling us that we must wait until next year for the backlog to be cleared.

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