Official lying in the UK: what child detention reveals about how we are governed

Persistent undermining of medical evidence that children are being harmed. Officials misleading ministers over a case of child sex abuse. Clare Sambrook’s evidence to the House of Lords suggests our democracy is in serious trouble.

For almost two years OurKingdom has been exposing the gap between official rhetoric and practice in the UK government’s appalling treatment of the vulnerable children of asylum seekers.

Today we present a disturbing new dossier by OurKingdom Co-Editor, the award-winning author Clare Sambrook — Official lying and how it harms our democracy (which can be opened as a PDF).

The dossier arose in response to an invitation from the House of Lords Communications Committee. The peers invited Clare to give live evidence on 11th October for their current inquiry into the future of investigative journalism. This dossier is being submitted to the committee today as an additional briefing paper.

The peers asked: what are the threats to journalism? Sambrook answers: the biggest threat to journalism and our democracy is official lying, and here is a narrow but deep sample of the way that officials communicate. “If the systematic mendacity recorded here is representative of the way government functions,” says Sambrook, “then our democracy is in serious trouble.”

Also giving evidence the same day was Ian Hislop. He helped the peers understand some basic distinctions, for example that hacking is not investigative journalism. He also made a striking point, for me at least, when asked to define investigative journalism. In part, he answered, it is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops. It is not just that Private Eye runs a story, its influence comes from repeating it over and over again.

There is an important lesson here. What matters is not revealing something that is wrong. The ice soon closes over. What matters – and what of course costs time and money – is continuous, informed, accurate repetition so that exposé of the wrongdoing will not go away. Hackgate can be seen as a classic vindication of this analysis. It did not just explode with the Milly Dowler revelation. Had the Guardian, or any other paper, run that story out of the blue, there would have been shock but no other consequences, certainly not the closure of the News of the World and the Leveson Inquiry.  Without Nick Davies’s (who gave evidence alongside Sambrook) utterly dedicated (for years ignored) persistence and the Guardian’s commitment to him, there would have been no explosion. 

This led me to reflect on the impact of Clare Sambrook’s coverage of child detention. It was backed by a campaign: just over two years ago Clare and five friends working unpaid and unfunded launched End Child Detention Now. OurKingdom was able to open its doors and let the campaign publish repeatedly and at will. We didn’t say, “Oh, we have already ‘covered’ that”. And boy did Clare and her ECDN colleagues invest their time.  In the process OurKingdom learnt how to combine ‘investigative comment’ with openness. I had not fully understood the importance of repetition as part of effective exposure.

Just how much work this means you can see for yourself, in the brief sample of Sambrook articles listed below. (The entire ECDN press campaign published so far is here). Now Sambrook’s dossier on official mendacity takes the argument a step further. For in the intense, relentless process of exposing the scandal of child detention another perhaps even greater scandal emerges. The British state and its civil service, which presents itself as an honest public service, is suborned. There is a clear pattern of persistent official lying used in defence of the punitive practice of arresting and detaining asylum-seeking families.

It is very important to understand that we are not talking about politicians being ‘economical with the truth’, or being misleading or downright lying — which everyone expects. It is not a matter of broken promises made on the stump to win votes. Clare Sambrook exposes repeated and systematic cover-up by officials, by civil servants employed by the taxpayer, of reputable medical evidence that children were being harmed. In the dossier she highlights attempts by officials to mislead ministers about the significance of safeguarding failures in a case of alleged child sex abuse at Yarl’s Wood, the UK Border Agency’s notorious Bedfordshire detention centre.

Urging a restoration of respect for information, Sambrook writes: “The role of government and local government press officers should be to serve the public with truth, not to serve ministers by spinning to the public.” To achieve this she suggests that “every press release and public statement issued by officials should be signed off by an official who takes responsibility for the accuracy of the information. It should be forbidden for civil servants to mislead Parliament or its committees, just as ministers are forbidden from so doing.”

The issue could hardly be more important if there is to be any trust in government.

At one point in the Committee hearings, committee chairman Lord Inglewood asked Ian Hislop and Alan Rusbridger: “Do you think there is masses of scandals out there that just never get revealed at all?” Hislop replied: “There is plenty that nobody knows anything about. Every time something turns up, I do not know about you, I say, ‘Good grief, I didn’t know that’.” I felt everyone in the room was reflecting on their secrets, little and perhaps not so little, for who knows? Baroness Fookes chipped in: “Like the perfect murder, we do not know about it.”

Indeed. But how much more perfect is it for everyone to know that the truth is being murdered while neither preventing nor reporting it.

A look back through the OurKingdom archive of Sambrook’s journalism that is grounded in her work with the pro bono citizens’ campaign End Child Detention Now:

January, 2010: In Roll calls, body searches and sex games, what Parliament isn’t being told about children’s lives inside a UK detention centre, Sambrook exposed official efforts to undermine medical evidence that children being locked up for administrative convenience were suffering lasting psychological harm.

March 2010: She exposed the practice of classifying vulnerable unaccompanied children as adults (thus denying them the care and protection that is due to minors) in Take one traumatised child, classify as 'adult', arrest, lock up, and bundle onto plane, bound for danger.

April 2010: In Surveillance + detention = £Billions: How Labour’s friends are ‘securing your world’, Sambrook examined the commercial outsourcing companies running the “detention estate”.

While in opposition, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had called Labour’s policy of arresting and detaining asylum seeking families “state sponsored cruelty”, and his party made ending child detention a manifesto promise. The coalition agreement included the unqualified assertion: “We will end child detention”. But instead of ending detention, the Coalition government ordered a “review of the alternatives” which excluded the very obvious alternative of not detaining children. To run this review it appointed, not a person of proven independence, but the UK Border Agency’s own Dave Wood, director of criminality and detention, and a staunch defender of the detention policy who had gone so far as to undermine peer reviewed medical evidence of harm to children in a misleading memo to Parliament.

15 December 2010: The Review of alternatives was to climax in a pre-Christmas Mission Accomplished-style speech from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. On the eve of Clegg’s announcement, Sambrook’s dossier Five years of denial: the UK government’s reckless pursuit of a punitive asylum policy — never mind the evidence of harm was published — and distributed to reporters — explicitly to encourage scepticism ahead of the fanfare.

The next day Nick Clegg duly proclaimed: “We are setting out, for the first time, how we are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes . . . That practice, the practice we inherited, ends here.”

But it didn’t.

As on 31 December 2010: Sambrook and End Child Detention Now demonstrated in Mind the Gap! Coalition claims and realities for child detention in the UK.

February 2011: Among the Coalition’s claims made soon after its formation and frequently repeated was that no child would be detained at Christmas 2010. And no child was, claimed the UK Border Agency as late as 10 January 2011. That wasn’t true either. A Freedom of Information request revealed that the Border Agency had indeed locked up an 11 year old girl in a detention centre on Christmas Day. “This story betrays UK Border Agency incompetence and contempt for democratic process, proving yet again that it is not fit to be entrusted with children’s care,” wrote Sambrook in these pages.

In July 2011, more than a year after the government promised to end child detention, we published Sambrook’s Frisk the 5-year-old: the UK Government’s new compassionate approach to child detention, revealing how a 5 year old, wrongly listed as a “visitor” to a UKBA detention facility at a Heathrow Airport detention facility and thus not recorded as a detainee, was subjected to a “rub down search” by a custody officer saying, “You’re a big boy now, so I have to search you.”

The government’s newest detention facility, “Cedars” in Pease Pottage, near Gatwick, freshly rebranded as “family friendly pre-departure accommodation” opened this past September. According to the Home Office this marked completion of  “The final stage in the government's pledge to end the detention of children for immigration purposes”.

Last week, on 15 November, in the House of Commons Nick Clegg faced this question from Labour MP Lisa Nandy:

“Last year, the Deputy Prime Minister, speaking in a professional capacity, set out how he would end child detention by May. It is now November. Does he still believe this practice is immoral and does he still plan to keep his promise? If so, will he tell the House when?”

Mr Clegg replied, “Compared with the previous Government’s record of thousands of young people being detained—yes, immorally—behind bars when they were entirely innocent, the new arrangements are a complete, humane, liberal revolution, of which I am very proud indeed.”

The work goes on.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy