This past Summer I’ve been trying to get some answers from Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, about their three-year partnership with the world’s biggest security company, G4S. Working together under a UK government contract, G4S and Barnardo’s hold asylum seekers and their children at a secure facility called Cedars in West Sussex, within easy reach of Gatwick Airport. CEDARS is an acronym for Compassion, Empathy, Dignity, Approachability, Respect and Support.
What is Barnardo’s doing in the immigration detention business? And how can a charity that claims to “fight for the UK’s most vulnerable children, supporting the children who need it most”, partner up with G4S?
That’s G4S, a company that supplies the Israeli military in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, that deploys ex-Gurkhas against environmental protesters in the UK, and that has just won a contract to support Guántanamo?
Under Britain’s Labour government, thousands of children, many of them born in Britain, were held with their parents in immigration detention centres in conditions proven to cause them lasting harm. As the Refugee Children’s Consortium notes: “After release from detention, the majority of families experienced on-going and persistent effects on their mental and emotional health.”
Many of the families had valid asylum claims and subsequently obtained leave to remain. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called the practice of child detention “state-sponsored cruelty”. In May 2010, the Coalition Agreement committed the new government to ending child detention for immigration purposes.
But instead of ending child detention, the government opened a new kind of lock-up, called ‘pre-departure accommodation’, with soft furnishings and a ‘family-friendly’ decor.
The Home Office selected G4S to run the new family-friendly facility, regardless of its renown among migrants as the company that killed Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan father of five who died while being heavily restrained by three G4S guards.
In March 2011 the Home Office named Barnardo’s as G4S’s partner in the business. Or, as the government’s press release put it: “Barnardo’s help asylum families. Children’s charity Barnardo’s will provide support and accommodation to migrants who have no right to be in the UK.” The new centre opened in August 2011.
The government set up a new ‘Independent Family Returns Panel’ to oversee the repackaged system. But with medical advice provided by Dr John W. Keen, a man who had been giving controversial assessments on asylum seekers for the UK Border Agency for years, it wasn’t quite as new or independent as advertised.
Barnardo’s drew a lot of criticism for their involvement in what they like to call, euphemistically, ‘the PDA’. In an attempt to deflect criticism, in August 2011, then chief executive Anne-Marie Carrie publicly set out what she called Barnardo’s 'red lines' — commitments which ranged from mild (the charity would “speak out about any concerns it has with regards the new immigration process for families”) to the meaninglessly convoluted:
“In order for the government to be held accountable to its commitment to end child detention, we insist that it must release figures each year on the number of families returned – be that through voluntary, assisted, required or enforced return. Barnardo’s will withdraw its services if after a year more than 10% of these families are accommodated and returned through the PDA. As the process is new, we appreciate that it may take time to embed, and so this measure will be introduced after August 2012 – however we would expect to see this figure fall significantly over time.”
Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the eminent paediatrician and former Children’s Commissioner for England, writing here on OurKingdom, warned that Barnardo’s might find it difficult to hold the government to account while receiving government funding for its services.
Three years on, how effective has the scrutiny promised by the ‘red lines’ been?
Not very, says barrister Frances Webber: “with hindsight, one sees how carefully they were drafted, giving the organisation plenty of ‘wriggle room’.”
When Prisons Inspectors visited Cedars in May 2012 they found six instances of children being detained more than once, breaching Barnardo’s third red line and in theory forcing the charity to withdraw its services. There has been no comment from Barnardo’s, let alone a withdrawal.
The Prisons Inspectorate report on Cedars documented how a pregnant woman had been forcibly held in a wheelchair by G4S guards and tipped up to enforce her removal, causing her to slip down from the chair. The Inspectors noted the ‘significant risk of harm’ to her unborn child. This incident was reported by the Guardian, the BBC and the Daily Mail. What did Barnardo’s have to say?
Not much. They issued a short statement declaring that they had raised their concerns with the Home Office.
In April this year, Barnardo’s published a report on their progress entitled Cedars: Two Years On. Would they finally hold the Home Office to account? Could they demonstrate effective scrutiny and publicly protect the interests of these vulnerable children?
The report makes five recommendations. The first two concern the officers who make arrests and escort families into detention. Barnardo’s note the officers’ lack of training and experience, request the creation of specialist family escort teams trained in child safeguarding, and ask that officers no longer turn up in protective riot gear — because that’s intimidating.
Barnardo’s goes on to ask the Home Office to define ‘physical intervention’ – in other words use of force – and prevent it being used against children and pregnant women.
On the matter of splitting detained families, Barnardo’s say that children should be removed from a parent only where there is a welfare or safeguarding concern, never for the purpose of immigration control. Where splitting is deemed necessary, they ask that it be for the shortest possible time.
Valid points. Why are they being noted in a report 176 weeks after Barnardo’s started taking the Home Office shilling? Why hasn’t Barnardo’s used its clout to fix these things already? Why didn’t it make these conditions of its engagement in the first place?
The charity’s report ignores the fact that arrests may be carried out in long-criticised ‘dawn raids’, involving considerable intimidation and force and putting children at risk of significant psychological harm.
Here’s one raid witnessed by Prisons Inspectors in January 2014: “Extreme force was used for several minutes to batter down a family’s door early in the morning. This would have been terrifying for the children had they been in the property. The reasons given for this tactic, which was not preceded by any attempt to knock on the door, lacked credibility.”
Children themselves have spoken of the trauma of arrest. These comments appeared in Children’s Commissioner Aynsley-Green’s report published back in February 2010:
- “I don’t like people seeing me when I'm getting dressed.”
- “I didn’t think it was real, not real life.”
- “I had 16 fish in a tank and everything, what’s happened to them?”
- “They broke our house.”
Barnardo’s claims that trained family escort teams are now being established. But how effective can that be, given the current model of outsourcing escort duties to the lowest bidder? Current escort guard providers Tascor (formerly called Reliance) took over the contract from G4S.
As the Coroner in the case of Jimmy Mubenga pointed out last year (PDF here) there was evidence of a “pervasive racism” among G4S escort guards, and they transferred en masse to the new contractor. The Coroner quoted various text messages that had been circulated widely among escort guards. Here is one:
“Fuck off and go home you free-loading, benefit grabbing, kid producing, violent, non-English speaking cock suckers and take those hairy-faced, sandal wearing, bomb making, goat fucking, smelly raghead bastards with you.”
Private Eye December 2011It’s strange that Barnardo’s has taken so long to warn against the use of force in Cedars. The fact that Cedars is classified as ‘pre-departure accommodation’ and not a detention centre created a regulatory black hole with regards to use of force, child safeguarding and other important matters. (Unlike people held in ‘detention centres’, detainees at Cedars have no statutory right to request independent medical advice). Barnardo’s report fails to explain why it took so long for them to raise any concern over use of force.
The wording of the recommendations on splitting families is dangerously unclear. Home Office guidelines state that separations are legitimate when used to prevent children witnessing ‘disruptive behaviour’ by their parents, and Barnardo’s agree with this. In the absence of a clear definition of ‘disruptive behaviour’, family splits might then be justified in any case where the parents are less than wholly compliant with the actions of enforcement staff. How then, could Barnardo’s recommendation give effective resistance to separations imposed for the purpose of immigration control?
The report raises other issues, but falls short of making any recommendations to address them. For example, Barnardo’s were apparently shocked by the standard of accommodation provided to asylum seekers living in the community, yet this has been repeatedly highlighted, in particular by John Grayson of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group in no fewer than 24 articles here on OurKingdom. There has been a Parliamentary Inquiry led by Sarah Teather MP, a National Audit Office Inqury, hearings at the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. Has Barnardo’s been paying attention?
Barnardo’s insist they have spoken out about unacceptable use of force on three occasions, but ‘speaking out’ here generally means a quiet word to the Home Office. By the publication of the report, two of their complaints stemming from these unacceptable incidents had been ruled on by the Home Office’s own Professional Standards Unit, one upheld and one rejected.
The report says almost nothing either about the actions taken as a result of the upheld complaint, or the reasons given for rejecting the second. It appears that Barnardo’s have meekly accepted government assurances. Were they convinced by the reasons given for rejection? If so, why not publish them and explain their turnaround? If not, why not? Whatever happened to speaking out?
Barnardo’s note an incident in which a family was detained for longer than a week at Cedars. This breaches not only the charity’s ‘red line’ but also the Home Office’s own regulations. The report’s passing note on this failure states: “The Home Office updated their procedures so that this could never happen again.”
So that’s all right, then.
Among urgent concerns that don’t get a mention: a recent evaluation by the Home Office found routine use of detention at Cedars, often as a ‘stopover’ for logistical convenience, yet still recommended greater use of the facility. The 2012 Prisons Inspectorate report even lamented the unused bed space. Barnardo’s make no mention either of the routine use or the calls for increasing detention, though they have claimed in the past to be worried by the risk that this ‘last resort’ would become routine.
Child detention outside the re-branded ‘pre-departure accommodation’ goes on. Around half of detained children are being held in other detention centres, usually the family wing of Tinsley House, an Immigration Removal Centre run by G4S in West Sussex where a 10 year old girl tried to strange herself in 2009. An unlucky few have been placed in the much criticised Yarl’s Wood centre, run by Serco in Bedfordshire. Barnardo’s chose not to include this in their report either.
Most disturbing is the lack of any consideration of whether the government’s new family-friendly detention system, or Barnardo’s role within it, or a partnership with G4S can be justified. Barnardo’s premise is that taking the contract with the Home Office was the right thing to do.
Many children’s advocates argue that the UK’s removals system simply can not be fair, humane or compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, when removal is the end point of an immigration process that fails the child at every stage. Far too often families reach the point of being detained without ever having had access to even remotely adequate legal advice.
Many families are detained only to be released back into the community where they have been living, making the process of subjecting these children to detention entirely pointless. According to the most recent Prisons Inspectorate report on Cedars, 25 families were released from Cedars in 2013. Last year, 88 children were held in the facility meaning these families represent at least a third of the children detained.
What do Barnardo’s say about the poor standard of this decision making? “Our role is not to comment on Home Office decision making procedures.” Their role instead is “to protect the interests of vulnerable children” caught up in the immigration system.
When children’s interests are being so clearly damaged by the decision making in question, how can these two statements be compatible?
I took advice from children’s advocates and safeguarding experts and asked Barnardo’s a series of detailed questions that arose from their report, including:
• Could you explain why it took so long for anything to be done or said about the lack of clear regulations on use of force at Cedars?
• Could you indicate whether you agree with the commission’s rejections of your referrals? And if so, what caused you to change your opinion?
• You say it’s acceptable to remove children to prevent them witnessing violence. What about when the authorities use force on parents? Should children be removed? How does your position work in practice?
• Your report notes that a family stayed beyond the one week limit. Could you give a clearer explanation of the measures taken to prevent a recurrence of this? Given you felt the original measures were sufficient to prevent it occurring, how can you be sure these will be effective?
• Your report does not mention the recommendations from both the Independent Family Returns Panel and HM Inspectorate of Prisons to increase the use of Cedars. How do you respond to these calls?
• An evaluation of the new Family Returns Process stated that Cedars is being used for logistical convenience, when open accommodation for this very purpose remains almost unused partly due to the unsuitability of conditions there. Why was this not included in your report? How do you respond to this finding?
• Your report states that your role is to protect the interests of vulnerable children, but you also say: “our role is not to comment on Home Office decision making procedures”. When these decision making procedures are clearly damaging the interests of vulnerable children, can you explain how this fits with your role?
Almost three weeks passed before Barnardo’s sent a reply. This was it:
“Barnardo’s works at Cedars to ensure that the welfare, dignity and protection of vulnerable children and their families is paramount during the final stage of the returns process. We are pleased that the Government is establishing specialist family returns escort teams, in line with recommendations from our Cedars Two Years On report. We will continue to lobby the Government on our other recommendations around arrest, use of force and to ensure that children should only be separated from their parent or parents if there is a safeguarding or welfare concern.”
Children deserve better advocacy than that.
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Note: A House of Commons Research Briefing by Melanie Gower, published September 2014, provides a useful summary and links to sources: Ending child immigration detention — Commons Library Standard Note.