Opinion: Why I am so pleased Yarl’s Wood Immigration Prison will be closed for families by this Government

Today, at Prime Minister’s Questions, the spotlight was on Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Being the first Liberal to speak to the Commons from the despatch box in place of the Prime Minister was a weird and wonderful thing.

Jack Straw was expected to come out on top, yet his ranting, especially about Sheffield Forgemaster’s, was a confirmation that Labour in opposition continues to put petty, political interests in front of the national interest. Nick Clegg stood up well: he wasn’t brilliant, but did far better than many of the media expected.

The continual baiting of Nick and the Lib Dems by Labour (and the completely ineffective Plaid Cymru) was unsurprising. They see the Liberal Democrats as the weak point of the coalition, yet do they not realise that these attacks make us stronger?

Just as David Cameron admitted yesterday that Britain is the ‘… junior partner with America’, the Liberal Democrats should accept the same is true of this coalition. That doesn’t mean we should be a lapdog, either domestically or internationally.

The first big chance this country has to prove that being a junior partner can be effective is the case of Asperger’s Sufferer, Gary McKinnon. We need to flex our muscles over the one-sided extradition agreement that Labour slavishly signed up to when in government. As with the Gurkhas, Nick Clegg has led this campaign (with the support of the Conservatives).

Gary McKinnon cannot, should not and hopefully will not be extradited. Yes, what he did was wrong; but he should be tried under our own judicial system and any sentence served within our system so his incredible, brave mother Janis Sharp and his family can support him. Any other result, would be a throwback to the Blair / Brown years of appeasement to the US at any cost – and we know what that caused.

The huge announcement today by the Deputy Prime Minister was about closing the family wing at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. The immigration ‘prison’ has long been a national disgrace, locking up scared children and their frightened mothers.

I am ashamed that this facility has existed for so long. I remember in a previous job, being in regular touch with a family about to be deported. The family were a shining light, an example of a family coming from nothing and ending up being a great example to the community they served. I will not reveal the name of the family, that would be unfair – what I will say is that their experience should embarrass each and every one of us.

They first got in touch when I worked for former Rochdale MP, Paul Rowen. The family had exercised all their rights of appeal by the time they came to us. The result of unscrupulous immigration ‘solicitors’ (so-called). We intervened, sent a letter to the then Immigration Minister Phil Woolas asking him to intervene. We pointed out that this family’s father – a policemen who had blown the whistle on police corruption in his country – had been murdered. We pointed out that the family had received threats, attached evidence of these, and provided proof of the murder. We also pointed out that the eldest child was head-girl at her school and the two youngest boys were being scouted by many Premiership football clubs. Woolas used his power after an intense media campaign, and a review of the case ordered.

This good news was welcome, but a matter of weeks later the family were arrested in an overnight raid. I received a frantic phone call at 2.30 am from one of thechildren’s teachers – where would they end up, she asked? I knew the answer. It was confirmed days later when I received a phone call from the eldest daughter: she and her family were now residents of the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre. I received calls about being locked away for hours on end, problems with the children’s dietary needs not being met, and a complete lack of information from immigration officials. Yarl’s Wood, full of uncertain, distressed families, became their state of limbo.

We approached new solicitors, spoke to Amnesty International, the Roman Catholic Church and hundreds of their many friends. The first time the family were ordered to board a coach to the airport two of the children refused outright. The Immigration Officials had to gain a court order to use force. How inhumane is that! We tried everything, my daily enquiry about the family’s welfare was met with derision by immigration officials, they were that used to my phone calls.

The court order then came through – we had 24 hours to stop their forced deportation. I spoke with a local nun who had joined their case and who was often in tears at the way this family was being treated. Phil Woolas had already intervened once and wouldn’t do so again. We had to use another tactic – we used Joanna Lumley as an example, and ‘jumped’ Phil Woolas at his constituency office. The nun and 30 supporters, mainly schoolchildren, were eventually granted an audience with the Minister. Woolas said he’d ‘do everything he could’ after listening to dozens of moving stories about the family’s contribution to life.

Fast forward to 8.30 pm the next night, and I was watching football in the pub. The phone goes, and it’s the eldest daughter: frantic. They had been given 15 minutes to pack up and if they didn’t, they would be ‘bundled’ onto a coach. There was absolutely nothing I could do. I heard the screaming and tears from Yarl’s Wood. This was the family’s worst nightmare. They were being forced to go back to a country that they genuinely believed was a danger to them. This case had affected me more than I imagined: all I could think about was this family and the way they were incarcerated for weeks on end. Their uncertain future and the tears, prayers and worries of all the family’s they had left behind – people who had been inspired by this wonderful family.

Looking back, it’s hard not to be affected. Despite promising to ‘do everything he could’, Phil Woolas never got back in touch with the nun or their supporters. I never heard from the family again. This case said more about Phil Woolas and the Labour Government trying to be ‘tough on immigration’ than it did compassion.

Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre was a symbol of this – and today’s announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that the family unit is closing is especially welcome. I hope that we ensure that children are not split up from their mother and that families mean families. It just goes to show that junior partners can wield influence over their more powerful parters. Now for Gary McKinnon.

* Dave Hennigan was Lib Dem Agent for Rochdale from 2004 to 2009, and is now Campaign Organiser for Manchester Lib Dems.

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10 Comments

  • Andrea Gill 21st Jul '10 - 8:20pm

    What I am keen to know is what the alternative is. What is going to happen to those families and children *instead*?

  • so not the whole establishment as claimmed at PM questions

  • Spent a long time campaigning to close Yarl’s Wood. Brilliant news.

    The system was like the Gulag Archipelago – 15 minutes for the children to pack their own and their mother’s bags before being bundled into a van and taken to the middle of Bedford Borough.

  • I believe DC also said something along the lines that we were junior partners in WW2 as well. To my mind the worst piece of asinine toadying to US by a British prime minister since the last piece of asinine toadying to the US by a British prime minister.

    “Jack Straw was expected to come out on top, yet his ranting, especially about Sheffield Forgemaster’s, was a confirmation that Labour in opposition continues to put petty, political interests in front of the national interest.”
    Deluded partisan nonsense.

    “We also pointed out that the eldest child was head-girl at her school and the two youngest boys were being scouted by many Premiership football clubs.” I have no idea why you think this has the remotest relevance to the rights and
    wrongs of this case. If they had been crap at football then ….?

    “The huge announcement today by the Deputy Prime Minister was about closing the family wing at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre.” I really wish the coalition would just actually do these things rather than just keep announcing them and then acting as though they had been done. The casual observer would have been under the impression that child detention had been ended weeks ago.

    For what its worth and in spite of the tone of rest of my comment I have a great deal of admiration for your efforts and the stance you have taken on this particular case.

  • I don’t claim to know how all Americans feel about the matter, but considering the breadth and resources of the British Empire in the 1940s, the United States and the United Kingdom could hardly have seen each other save as equal partners. The fact, galling as it may be to some Americans to contemplate, is that through most of its history the United States nursed an inferiority complex with respect to the British, and did not start to consider themselves equal in prestige to the mother country until the early 20th century, and especially with their participation in the First World War. The Americans at that time considered their proper province to be the New World and (increasingly) the Pacific Ocean, and kept out of Old World affairs until 1917. Only with the end of World War II did the Americans discover themselves, much to their surprise, a dominant world power; and I do not think that the British government came to perceive itself as functioning in a “junior role” until the Suez Crisis of 1956-1957.

  • Dave Hennigan 22nd Jul '10 - 12:18pm

    Andrew R, the point about their personal achievements is valid, as valid as providing evidence that their dad was murdered or that the family themselves had received threats to their lives before jumping ship. Building an immigration case is to build an all round case – that is what we did.

  • Patrick Smith 22nd Jul '10 - 4:43pm

    The belated closure of the Yarlswood Family Centre can only bode well for an injection of liberal fairness in responding to how to do much better for individual mothers and children caught up in the web of immigration .Often family members are entrapped and can be the innocent victims of the unwieldy system.

    The PM should do well to read Max Hasting`s `Armageddon’ when Churchill according to his private secreary saw himself as the supreme authority up until Operation Overlord.

    And not until July 1944 post D Day Normandy Landings did Churchill concede that it was now America who made the big decisions.

    Although by 1944 the US provided 40 per cent of the entire armaments employed by all the combatants on every front in the Second World War. However, it was Britain and the Commonwealth that sent over 80% and the baulk of courageous battle hardened troops who climbed out of landing craft and went onto the Normandy beaches on June 6th 1944.

    I agree with Dave Hennigan that the US Extradition law has been mainly one way in favour of taking wanted Brits to the US and not the not bringing wanted extraditable Americans here.

    The Gary McKinnon case is that he has always admitted that he was did wrong but has asked to be tried in the UK and not extradited to the US due to `Asperger’s Syndrome’.

    I believe that Gary McKinnon, a British subject, should be tried in the UK,with US evidences presented, as the alleged crimes were committed in 2002 and the Extradition Law not passed until 2003, post 9/11.

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