Liberal Democrats are understandably confused about whether child detention is ending or not.
Nick Clegg got the commitment to end child detention into the Coalition Agreement. Only last Thursday Sarah Teather promised: ‘Rest assured. It will be done.’ She also said: ‘We have to be careful not to rush into this as we are dealing with the safety and well-being of often vulnerable children and it is essential it is done properly.’
Quite how children’s safety might be served by not rushing to end a practice proven to wreck their lives is a mystery that suggests leading Liberal Democrats have been gulled by the detention enthusiasts at the Home Office.
Within 24 hours of Teather’s reassurance two more children were reported behind bars at Yarl’s Wood.
‘The question now is how we bring this practice to an end. That is what the Government is looking at right now,’ said Teather.
‘What the government is looking at’, pilot projects designed and executed behind the backs of expert NGOs whom Damian Green had promised to consult, means bundling vulnerable families out of the country with scant recourse to
Green has lately adjusted his rhetoric from no more detention to ‘minimising’ detention, not far off his predecessor Phil Woolas’s stated position.
That the Home Office has resisted doing the right thing, stopping child detention right away, is not surprising given their enthusiasm for the policy. That the Border Agency cannot be trusted has been shown time and again and as recently as June, when an eye-popping safeguarding report criticised it for ‘fundamental’ child protection failings. Dismissing a mother’s desperate pleas for medical care for her five year old, sexually abused at Yarl’s Wood, the Border Agency swept mother and child out of the country.
‘Children detained by the Government for immigration purposes are at risk of serious harm,’ says Malcolm Stevens, an eminent child protection expert and former government advisor. ‘Reports such as that just published by Medical Justice — State-Sponsored Cruelty — provide the telling evidence of precisely what are the physical, psychological and emotional effects of that harm. For a country which has positive outcomes at the heart of all of its policies for children this is wholly unacceptable. There is every reason therefore for the new Government to stop detaining children and families forthwith; whatever other action so far as alternatives are concerned are of secondary importance and can be put in place afterwards.’
Liberal Democrats should push for the immediate end of child detention that Chris Huhne demanded as recently as March. Detention wrecks children’s lives, causes lasting psychological harm. And there is anyway no need for it. Even the Home Office admits that families with children don’t abscond. Detention’s abhorrent primary purpose is deterrence, as a UK Border Agency director admitted to Parliament last year.
Please, Liberal Democrats, work to stop it, now.
Clare Sambrook is a novelist, journalist and co-ordinator of the citizens’ campaign End Child Detention Now.
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