UK government's slippery response on the "moral outrage" of child detention

On November 5, the campaign published a detailed rebuttal of the UK government’s recent statement on child detention

Despite Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledging to end the "moral outrage" of child detention for immigration purposes, the UK Border Agency still continues to lock up the young and the vulnerable. Here, End Child Detention Now gives a point-by-point rebuttal to the government's highly misleading response to its online petition calling for an end to the shameful practice. The campaign is encouraging people to write to their MP using the model letter on their site expressing concern and disillusionment that children are still being detained and that the alternative proposals include provision for the detention of children.

This is the government's response, followed by the reality.

The Coalition: "Our programme for Government”, published on 20 May, stated: ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes’. This remains the case. Significant progress has been made in working towards this commitment."

The reality: To date children are still being held in detention centres and the alternatives being piloted by government still have provisions to hold children.

"We have already announced that the family unit at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre is to close.   

To date the family unit at Yarl’s Wood is still open, children are still being taken and held there, many face long journeys from Scotland since the Scottish Executive, faced with the medical evidence of harm, has outlawed the detention of children in immigration centres already.

"We are currently piloting (in the North West and London) some proposed changes to how we work with families and plan for their departure.   

The Government continues to talk of pilot studies for alternatives to detention in the North West and in London, but serious concerns are being raised about these pilots from those on the ground and respected charities such as the Children's Society.
 
"We continue to consult widely and many non-government organisations continue to contribute their advice.

The government did indeed consult with a number of NGOs through a working party chaired jointly by UKBA and the Diana Fund. But these NGOs had no knowledge of the existence of the pilots until they read of it in Guardian. They played no part in the pilots’ design about which they have expressed serious criticism. They continue to press for the immediate end of child detention.

"However, our commitment to end the detention of children for immigration purposes does not mean families with children, who have no right to remain in the UK, can do so.  

Once again the protection of children is being conflated with a family’s right to remain. Dave Wood, the head of enforcement at the UKBA, has said himself that detention of families serves primarily as a deterrent for would be asylum-seekers, and that families are unlikely to abscond. 
 
At least five independent medical reports demonstrate that detaining children is harmful. It is shocking that in the face of this evidence the Government did not end detention on the day they came into power.

We are mindful of our obligations under the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, both in carrying out the duties of the UK Border Agency and in developing new policies.  
 
It is difficult to give this claim much credence for a number of reasons.
 
First, there are concerns that the Home Office is not being clear about the number of children it has detained since the new coalition government came to power. Journalist and University Lecturer Melanie McFadyean found that the Home Office was not able to produce accurate figures on the number of children in detention.

Last month the Home Office told McFadyean that between May and August this year 80 children had been detained. The next day the figure changed again to 59 children. 

McFadyean was told that 31 of the children had been held at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, which leaves campaigners to wonder what happened to the remaining 28?

McFadyean raises the question of whether this means that prisons and holding centres at borders, where there are no or extremely limited facilities for children, may be being used as well as the detention removal centres:  ‘ghosting families around the prison estate would render them less visible.’

McFadyean was told the figures given to her are not official statistics but "purely UK Border Agency management information". She was asked to refer to them as "figures supplied by the Home Office or something along those lines".

Second, the man placed in charge of the review, Dave Wood, is currently head of enforcement at the UKBA. He is not an expert in the safeguarding of children and child welfare. Nor does the UKBA ‘Children’s Champion’ Kristian Armstrong — also working on the Review — have any background in child protection or children’s services.
 
There were many independent child welfare experts whom the government might have appointed to head the review into the detention of children for immigration purposes, yet it chose to appoint the architect of the former government's discredited child detention strategy to oversee the formulation of ‘an alternative’. It is little wonder that another rushed and flawed pilot is being used as an excuse to return to ‘detention as a last resort’.

"It remains the case that only those who both the Agency and the courts are satisfied do not need the UK’s protection, and refuse to leave voluntarily, face removal.  The instigation of any family removal will be initiated only when all appeal rights have been exhausted.

We have information that families who have not exhausted their right to appeal are being used in the pilots. A denial of due process that the Children’s Society complained about in a recent investigation for BBC Radio 4.

"The pilots are exploring alternatives to detention. 

This is misleading. Detention is still a part of the pilots. After the second notice period children and families are still being detained.

"Families in the pilot process are given a minimum of two weeks to consider voluntary departure options.  The period of consideration is based on the individual circumstances of the family. Following the expiry of this period of consideration there is a second notice period, again of two weeks before the family face enforced removal.

We have information that rather than being asked to ‘consider’ voluntary departure, families are being pressured into returning to countries where they fear persecution. 

If the family exercises their legal right to appeal, the government says they ‘face enforced removal’ including detention. 

"The pilots are seeking to take an approach which acknowledges that the welfare of the children involved must be taken into account at every stage.  They are exploring how we can strengthen the way the UK Border Agency engages with families and takes decisions, with the aim of giving families the opportunity to control how they return home, and to do so with dignity.

There is no evidence of this whatsoever. Apart from some information gleaned by a recent BBC investigation very little information regarding the pilots has been made public and they are far from transparent. 
 
We are awaiting a response to a Freedom of Information Request we submitted asking who has been consulted in the design of these pilots. As far as we are aware there has been no consultation with child welfare practitioners or child protection experts. It is not clear that the pilots have been ‘designed’ at all in any recognised sense, or whether there is any provision for proper and detailed evaluation. 
 
"The experience of the pilots, supported by the wide consultation instigated by the UKBA, continues to feed into the ongoing review of Child Detention.

As above, the ‘experience of the pilots’ will be very hard to determine given the gaping flaws in their design.

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.