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A dispassionate outsiderindeed anyonelooking at this group of amendments would find it strange that in 2002 we are debating the use of force to remove people from this country, the detention of children, the renaming of centres as "removal centres", and the concept of accommodation centres that are in reality detention centres. They would also find strange the lack of support for many people who are so detained. I find that extremely depressing.
I have been involved in immigration and asylum law as long as I have been in the House and I have dealt with hundreds if not thousands of constituency cases. I have visited a number of the centres. I find it deeply depressing that the number of people detained rises inexorably over the years while the British increasingly proselytise around the world about being in favour of human rights. About 4,000 people are detained under immigration law, and that number is likely to rise as the years go by. We should be thinking about double standards here.
I find the principle of detention offensive. A person should be detained only by court order, not by Executive order, and should always have access to the courts, whatever the process behind the detention. The Bill does not allow for that. Indeed, immigration law in effect allows for arbitrary detentiondependent largely on the number of detention spaces available at any time, rather than on the merits, justice or injustice of the case. Surely we should be a bit more grown up than that.
I strongly endorse the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and support amendment No. 262, which he tabled. I should be grateful to the Minister if she could tell us in her reply where compatibility of the detention of children with the Children Act 1989 comes into play. I have always understoodI may be wrongthat the Children Act supersedes all other legislation in relation to the treatment of children and that the priority is their welfare, education, health and support, not their likelihood or otherwise of absconding. We should think quite seriously about that.
Yesterday, the House failed to debate the serious issues of education. I would argue that the Children Act 1989 provides the opportunity for education to any child who happens to be resident in this country at any time, but the Bill contains the idea of arbitrary detention.
I have met many unaccompanied children who have arrived in this country to seek asylum. Without exception, they are deeply traumatised by what they have been through, to the extent that they are often unable to talk about it for several years. Even with very valuable psychiatric help, they find their experience very hard to confront. The horrors that they have experienced come out in their art, writing and conversation. Thankfully, children in this country never see the war scenes that those children have seenI hope that they never doyet we seek to detain those children.
Simon Hughes: About 6,000 asylum-seeking children a year arrive unaccompanied in this country. I want to reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. We are talking not about a handful of youngsters but about a significant number of young people who, for whatever reason, arrive in this country with no adult and no one to look after them.
Obviously, a significant number of children are involved, all of whom have a story to tell and deserve support. Unless they are treated properly and given the necessary support when they arrive here, what will be the effect on them in later life? They have gone through a terrible trauma, but they are, in effect, kept in prison. What kind of adults will they become? What kind of people are we developing as a result?
I hope that we can have a little more compassion and a bit more understanding and support. Let us remember that all those kids also have hopes, ambitions and ideas. They have a contribution to make to our society, and indeed many of them make that contribution.
My final point is that we saw the news, the demonstrations and the recent fire at Yarl's Wood. Obviously, what happened there was terrible. Obviously, any injuries sustained are terrible and those events are deeply regrettable. However, we should think for a moment about what would be our view of another country where a fire was caused at a detention centre and many inmates were put in danger as a result, when it was not very clear who was there, why they were there or whether they fell into the category of asylum seekers who had recently arrived but whose cases were dubious, of those who were due to be removed or of those whose cases had gone on for years without being determined.
There were also riots and disorder at Campsfield. I recall a visit to Campsfield and I could see on people's faces the frustration boiling up there. Having left what they believed to be a dangerous situation in their own countries, where arbitrary detention was the norm, they found themselves arbitrarily detained on arrival in this country. I would hope that the Bill, with its many faults, would at least not make worse the situation of arbitrary detention, unfair detention and lack of justice that is implicit in it.
I look forward to the Minister's reply. In particular, in terms of signing up to the UN convention on the child, we should ratify it, operate it, and, above all, give priority to the welfare, education, social and health needs of children, and not detain them.
Annabelle Ewing (Perth): I support all the comments made so far by Opposition Members and Labour Back Benchers. At the outset, I want to say that we are talking about the clause dealing with the redesignation of detention centres, which will be known in due course as removal centres. I have before me a copy of a written question that was answered by the Home Office on Thursday 18 April, and a copy of a reply that I received
On the important substantive issues raised by the amendments, I agree totally that detention is not, in principle, acceptable when one is detaining people who have committed no crime. That is a key tenet of Scots law, and we have a very strict rule in Scotland that one must bring a person to trial within 110 days. The Government's approach to detention policy completely goes against basic principles of Scots law and of natural justice. So we cannot support the Government's detention policy.
On the specific matters raised, the amendments deal with various important issues concerning the length of time for which somebody could be detained, the grounds on which a person will be detained and the important issue of detaining children in what are effectively prisons. I use the word "prison" carefully. Dungavel detention centre in Scotland was, until very recently, a prison. I visited Dungavel recently, and it shares with a prison the key characteristic that those inside are not at liberty to leave the premises. I shall come back to the issue of children shortly, but, in a civilised state, placing children in what is effectively a prison is shameful.
On the issue of the grounds on which people are held, which is dealt with in amendment No. 141, it may interest the House to know that, further to a visit to Dungavel detention centre in April, the cross-party group on refugees and asylum seekers in the Scottish Parliament submitted a report, dated 22 April 2002, to the Home Office. I am not clear whether the Home Office has yet responded to the Scots Parliament, and perhaps the Minister will clarify that when she replies. The report raised various concerns about the operation of the Dungavel detention centre, including the grounds on which people were apparently held. That caused a furore in Scotland and led to the then Minister of State, Scotland Office, the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), saying on a BBC Scotland programme on 28 April that the only people detained in Dungavel were those who
The length of time for which people are held in detention centres is unacceptable. As I have said, those people have been not been convicted of any crime but, in many cases, they are held for a very long time. That is unacceptable in a civilised country.
I am happy to support the amendments, and I hope that the Government will reflect further on their policy for detention centres. The accountability and transparency of the operation of the centres is another important issue. The Dungavel detention centre is operated by a private company, Premier Detention Services, and I asked the Home Office whether the contract with the company could be placed in the public domain. On Friday 10 May I received an answer advising that the service aspect of the contract would be published in due course and that copies would be placed in the Library. One month later, that has not occurred. That sums up the problems surrounding the contracting out of such services to private sector companies.
My final point deals with a matter that is not raised specifically by the amendments but relates to the operation of detention centres. Perhaps the Minister will clarify how the costs of running them are funded. I imagine that the costs are fairly high. For example, the cost of converting Dungavel into a fully fledged removal centre is expected to be about £3.5 million, and that information has been provided by the Home Office itself. Perhaps the cost of this misguided Government policy will be clarified. Who will pay the £3.5 million for Dungavel? Will it come from the Scottish Executive or the Home Office budget?