A child prisoner, a Santa suit and a Border Agency out of ministerial control

As recently as 10 January, the Home Office falsely claimed that no child had been detained for immigration purposes this past Christmas. A Freedom of Information Request extracted the truth, proving that the Home Office cannot be trusted on child detention.

In this morning’s Independent Andrew Grice reveals that the UK Border Agency locked up an 11-year-old girl in an immigration removal centre on Christmas Day in defiance of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s promise that no child would be so detained at Christmas.

As recently as 10 January a Home Office press officer falsely claimed that no child had been detained at Christmas. A Freedom of Information Request drew out the truth, talk of which reached Grice.

Besides making deputy prime minister Nick Clegg look a deceiver and a Grade A twit, 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.

‘This exposes the duplicity of the UKBA in failing to keep ministers informed of its activities,’ said Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner who first drew attention to the appalling damage being done to children in detention. ‘UKBA is an organisation out of ministerial control. Those responsible should now consider their position for this serious embarrassment to ministers which also demolishes the credibility and trust we have in the coalition's commitment to end child detention now.’

‘Any breach of the Government’s commitment to Parliament is serious,’ says Malcolm Stevens, an independent childcare consultant and former Government adviser. ‘UKBA’s apparent disregard for the Government’s own safeguarding arrangements for children (by once again detaining a child in accommodation not approved for that purpose) shows continuing lack of understanding and integrity.’

The coalition agreement proclaimed in May 2010: ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes’.

This would be accomplished within weeks of July, immigration minister Damian Green told a Citizens UK rally in June. Green joked that if children were still detained come Christmas he would personally dress up as Santa Claus.

Instead of stopping the arrests and detentions while humane and evidence-based arrangements were put in place, Green ordered the continuation of those harmful practices while civil servants and ‘stakeholders’ engaged in a review of the ‘alternatives to detention’.

Smelling a rat, Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert MP, told the House, ‘The main alternative that I can think of to detaining 1,000 children a year is not to detain them.’

To lead and manage the spurious review, Green appointed UKBA’s own Dave Wood, a former police officer who bears the Orwellian title ‘director of criminality and detention’. This was akin to putting Herod in charge of baby-care, since Wood has been the detention policy’s most fervent defender, even to the extent of rubbishing medical evidence of harm — in a misleading memo to a Parliamentary committee.

Behind the backs of charities hand-picked to serve the review, UKBA embarked on punitive ‘pilots’ of ill-designed ‘alternatives’ which included, guess what? Detention.

By September, Green was telling the House detention would be, not ended, but ‘minimised’.

With Christmas fast approaching, children still being locked up, and campaigners plotting Santa stunts, government spin-doctors came up with an ingenious plan.

Nick Clegg delivered a personal video message to another Citizens UK rally on December 2nd, saying: ‘The government will be announcing by Christmas how we will put an end to the detention of children for immigration purposes for good.’ 

Liberal Democrat minister for children Sarah Teather spoke live at the event, and UKBA’s departing chief executive Lin Homer cheerfully accepted a Yuletide gift from someone dressed as Santa Claus. The present? A chocolate Santa, much enjoyed by Homer’s staff.

Clegg duly unveiled ‘a new compassionate approach to family returns’, in another impassioned speech, on December 16th. ‘We are setting out, for the first time, how we are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes in the UK,’ he said. ‘Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, whatever your views on immigration, this is surely a change we can all support. Not least at this time of year, Christmas: a time for family, for goodwill, and, especially, for children.’

Campaign groups told their Santas to stand down.

But the new arrangements, far from ending child detention, only rebranded it. According to the government’s own documents children will continue to be detained. The place of detention, until at least May this year, will be Tinsley House, a G4S-run establishment that has earned repeated criticism from HM Inspector of Prisons for child protection and other failures. (That and other discrepancies between government rhetoric and action are exposed in my OurKingdom dossier, Mind the Gap! Coalition claims and realities for child detention in the UK.)

In his mid-December speech, Clegg said: ‘The new spirit is already governing the way the authorities operate. On that, I hope the fact there will be no children in detention this Christmas speaks for itself.’

Indeed, it speaks volumes.

About the author

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist. Co-editor of OurKingdom and co-founder of End Child Detention Now. Winner of Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism in 2010. Orwell Prize nominee in 2013.