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Coalition promise in tatters as Home Office 'independent' panel wants more children detained

The Coalition government promised to end child detention for immigration purposes, and appointed an 'independent' panel to protect children caught up in the asylum system. That Panel's first annual report rightly exposes a commercial contractor's ineptitude — and unwittingly reveals its own capture by the Border Agency.

Reliance, the UK private security firm contracted in May 2011 to escort people detained under the Immigration Act, has spectacularly failed to live up to its name. Reliance, who replaced G4S, have proven so unreliable that the Border Agency now routinely plans for staff failing even to turn up. When they do, many are not trained or even vetted properly, according to a new report by the Agency’s so-called 'Independent' Family Returns Panel.

The Panel's first annual report highlights shocking flaws in the Family Returns Process, not least the lack of professionalism and sheer ineptitude of the company to which the Border Agency has outsourced the care of children and families.

Reliance are using officers who have no childcare training and have not been CRB-checked to escort vulnerable children, often holding them for many hours at a time in vans and buses parked in lay-bys and airport aprons without a toilet break. Members of the Panel even witnessed a family being forcibly returned on a charter plane full of convicted criminals, raising serious child protection issues.

Strangely, the Panel failed to raise these issues themselves until after the flight had departed, ignoring their responsibilities under both the Children Act and Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 - the duty to safeguard children by the UK Border Agency and its contractors.

Indeed Reliance’s shoddy practice is not the most startling revelation in this extraordinary report by a Panel that purports to protect the interests of children being removed by the UK immigration authorities, but concludes here that greater numbers of children should be locked up during removal.

The ‘independent’ Family Returns Panel has been damaged since birth. Back in December 2010, the Coalition Government set out their plans to end the detention of children for immigration purposes – a Coalition agreement  pledge – but instead of ending child detention, the government commissioned a “Review” led by the Border Agency itself, out of which came detention rebranded, as part of the new ‘Family Returns Process’.

The family unit at the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was closed, but a new detention centre, presented as family-friendly “Pre-Departure Accommodation” and called “Cedars” opened in August 2011. Run by security company G4S and children’s charity Barnardo’s, Cedars is an acronym for Compassion, Empathy, Dignity, Approachability, Respect and Support.

The ‘independent’ Panel was one part of the rebranding. One member, Dr John Keen, who for the first thirteen months was the Panel's sole medical expert, can hardly be called independent. For years he has been a paid medical adviser to the Border Agency.

The Panel’s report suggests a weak organisation, far from independent from the Border Agency. Astonishingly, the Panel do not receive information about complaints made against the Border Agency, and have not seen fit to ask for them until now, a full year after the Panel was set up.

According to their original remit, the Panel are required to ensure that detentions at Short Term Holding Facilities at airports and ports across the country are kept to a minimum. Despite this, the report notes that “no data have been provided relating to the holding of children at the ports themselves (which make up the great majority of cases)”. About this gross omission the Panel simply recommends that the Border Agency begin providing that information.

Most disturbingly, the Panel recommends that “more families would benefit from a short stay at Cedars” — apparently an unspecified number of parents reported that they benefited from their stay. The Panel also note that Cedars is “exceptionally effective” at ensuring that detainees are returned to their country of origin.

Despite the welcoming name and the family-friendly re-branding, ‘short stay’ still means ‘detention’. ‘Residents’ are detained against their will. Healthcare arrangements at Cedars are inferior to those at the old Yarl’s Wood family unit. Detainees at Cedars are offered no paediatric, antenatal or mental health care. Although families are technically allowed to leave the facility for supervised outings – assuming they pass a risk assessment – no such trips were authorised during its first year of operation.

The report even recommends priority targeting for British-born children, who should be fast-tracked into detention and deportation to stem the development of family and community ties. Presumably, this is aimed at preventing successful claims under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Several recommendations amount to attempts to instil a 'chilling' effect on people who sometimes represent barriers to deportation. For instance, the Panel suggest that head-teachers and teachers should be persuaded not to take part in any anti-removal campaigns. There are  subtle attempts at dissuading solicitors from taking on difficult asylum cases or lodging injunctions and judicial reviews.

The Panel seem to believe that access to legal representation should be reduced even though their report admits that one family whose right to appeal was deemed to be exhausted had received no legal advice at any stage of the process.

The charity Refugee Action are contracted to raise awareness of the  government’s Assisted Voluntary Return scheme, though this does not extend to promoting the scheme, as specifically noted in the report. Despite this, the Panel recommend that the charity be more “persuasive and proactive” when making families aware of the option to voluntarily leave. The recommendation amounts to a demand that Refugee Action push families towards leaving the country, with the threat of detention providing leverage. Though the organisation have publicly rejected this pressure, the report goes on to recommend that the next time the Border Agency enlists civil society partners to promote their schemes, this role is written into the contract.

The position of the Panel is that the interests of children are best served by their families leaving voluntarily at the earliest part of the process. However, in almost 40 per cent of such cases resolved during the past year, families were granted leave to remain. It is difficult to argue that these children's interests would have been better served if the family had not pursued their asylum claim and instead returned to persecution.

Many parts of the report highlight the scale of child detention still occurring, despite all the promises and proud pronouncements of its end. Cedars is supposed to be used only as a last resort, and while the Panel do admit that placing children into detention “in order to break the journey” is inconsistent with this, their definition of 'last resort' still differs wildly from that of Barnardo's.

The children's charity works in partnership with G4S at Cedars, but took on the role – drawing much criticism – provided that their published 'red lines' were respected. One such threshold is that no more than 10 per cent of children removed are detained at the facility. This limit has been massively breached during the first year of Cedars, prompting the Panel to recommend that Barnardo's review their position.

Revising this limit would constitute a humiliating climb-down, severely damaging to Barnardo's. However, even doubling the allowance would not have been enough to accommodate the numbers of children detained by the Border Agency during the past year. The only reason Barnardo's are not obliged to withdraw their services is that they have decided to ignore figures prior to August 2012.

One reason behind this underlying urge to increase detention emerges towards the end of the report, where the Panel pledge to continue providing “value for money” advice, before lamenting that Cedars is currently “operating at well below capacity”. They attribute this 'issue' to “differing levels of engagement”, ignoring the far more reasonable assertion that it is because Cedars is only to be used as a last resort. Operating at capacity, it would have detained more than four thousand children in the past year, as noted by Professor Heaven Crawley. Barnardo's red line would have been well and truly smashed.

One problem the report fails to raise — and occasionally falls victim to itself — is the culture of disbelief that is routinely reported about the UKBA. There is a presumption of guilt that seems to spread right through the asylum system, as further evidenced by the recent report published by the Children's Society in which many of the children interviewed said they were treated with suspicion and often asked the same questions repeatedly in an effort to “catch them out”. Many are accused of lying about their age; around 1200 unaccompanied minors are subject to age disputes each year. This inevitably leads to incorrect age assessments and subsequent unlawful detention in adult centres, posing “serious safeguarding risks for children”.

In his foreword to the Panel’s report chairman Chris Spencer lets slip something deeply worrying. Thanking the Border Agency’s Family Returns Unit for their professional support, Spencer says, “Members of the Panel have had to learn a whole new language, get used to the cultural undercurrents of the UK Border Agency.”

Why so worrying? From the most vulnerable detainee to independent doctors and lawyers, to Conservative members in the House of Lords, it is widely agreed that there is something rotten in the Border Agency’s culture. Surely, for the sake of those children whose interests they are supposed to protect, Chris Spencer and his Panel ought to be challenging that culture, not getting used to it.


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