The Independent View: Please make sure they really do end child detention

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
legal advice.

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.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Well said Clare, am in total agreement. It is, as you have pointed out, very easy to say that all detention of child migrants should be stopped immediately, it’s another thing to actually get the desired result. Deporting children back to ‘re-integration’ centres in war torn countries is not the desired result. Ever more increased use of draconian measures, such as the threat of dawn raids at any time to deport child migrants and their families, is not the desired result. The LibDems need to take a good long look, at what they are being asked to sanction, as others will be doing just that.

  • The LibDems seem to be more focused on policies that will give them power rather than those that will make a difference to people’s lives. AV, fixed term parliament are examples. End of child dentention, dealing with the effects of the draconian cuts shelved for another day.

  • The issue is being raised in the House of Lords on Monday October 11 asking for the date when the detention of children for immigration purposes will be ended completely. A great deal depends on the answer.

  • @BB – relinking pensions to earnings, increasing the tax-free allowance for the lowest paid…

  • Grammar Police 15th Sep '10 - 4:41pm

    I don’t think “Liberal Democrats” are confused about this at all. As to whether Lib Dem ministers have achieved an immediate end to the practice, is another thing.

    The Guardian’s story about “secret briefing papers” was coupled with a later clarification/climbdown: “A post-publication comment from the Home Office was inserted on 6 August, noting that the briefing paper was not written by UKBA but by a Manchester City Council employee. On 10 August, further details were inserted from Manchester council and the Home Office regarding the purpose of the briefing document and the role of local authorities in the north-west. A print correction was also due to appear in the Guardian of 11 August.”

    @ BB if you think AV or fixed term parliaments give Lib Dems power, then can I have some of whatever you’re drinking?!

  • @Stuart

    ….relinking pensions to earnings..


    Something that all three parties pledged to do.

    …increasing the tax-free allowance for the lowest paid…

    Firstly, the tax allowance increase was for all taxpayers, whether millionaire investment bankers, or shopfloor cleaners.

    Secondly, this increase is more than wiped out when you take into account the regressive measures taken on tax and benefits within the coalition budget.

  • Not only does the detention of children and their families continue, dawn raids are also alive and well. The young woman I visited this afternoon was detained on Monday at 6.30am with her two year old son, this is the third time they have been in Yarl’s Wood.
    Fleeing religious persecution, this young woman spent five years living on the streets of Italy. Heavily pregnant she arrived here to avoid having to live on the streets with her baby. She is now 19. We are returning her to the streets of Italy tomorrow.

  • @Grammar Police
    Posted 15th September 2010 at 4:41 pm
    ‘if you think AV or fixed term parliaments give Lib Dems power, then can I have some of whatever you’re drinking?!’

    LibDems are going for AV as they hope more of their MPs will get the 2nd preference votes and hence a seat in government. Fixed term parliaments -so they can hang on to the power they have got now a bit longer as they will get wiped out after that.

  • BB – I’ve not seen a projection of AV that gives the LDs more than a very tiny increase in seats relative to FPTP. I honestly can’t say that AV in itself benefits the LDs significantly but it is however at least a step above our current system.

  • Grammar Police is just adopting the Tory tactic of finding any trivial fault with any report and attacking that, rather than the substance of the report. A tactic gaining more and more use amongst LibDems.

  • Clare: what alternative(s) is/are you suggesting?

    Obviously, child detention is dreadful and needs to end. But there needs to be a proper system in place to replace it, or they won’t be that much better off.
    Lot of people already dumped in due-to-be demolished flats on ‘problem’ estates, for instance, because we’re desperately short of social housing.

    Could detention centres be turned into support centres, for instance?

    It would be nice, btw, if people stayed on topic, rather than hijacking every thread on every subject to bash Lib Dems. If you want to talk about AV or pensions, do it on a thread about AV or pensions. Not like there aren’t any.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Sep '10 - 7:33pm


    As I’ve remarked in an earlier thread, the best answer to your question has already been given by Julian Huppert: “The main alternative that I can think of to detaining 1,000 children a year is not to detain them.”

    I’m not usually a big believer in the simple solution; but this time I think it really is that straightforward.

  • Grammar Police 15th Sep '10 - 9:52pm

    @ Jayu – if something is based on false premises it’s not necessarily reliable is it though? I wouldn’t say that’s trivial and I wouldn’t say it’s a “Tory tactic”, I’d say it’s common sense. I prefer my opinions to be based on the evidence.

    In any event, I’m just pointing out that The Guardian story was not what it was first held out to be by the newspaper – it wasn’t a “secret plan” by the Government it was something drawn up by a contractor working for a company working for Birmingham City Council. Many other sources have relied on this story has evidence of the Government’s approach to this issue. I think it’s important we get the full facts.

    It’s a bit like when The Guardian’s report on Party funding said in a “fact box” [sic] that the Lib Dems were always in debt; or when they said that the Government was going to get rid of an FCO report into Human Rights standards in other countries (as opposed to just getting rid of either the paper or online version of it – I forget which). Similarly, the “Government’s secret plan to deport children” was in fact an idea mooted by an employee of a private company hired by Birmingham City Council.

    @ BB – do you actually know how AV works?

    On fixed term parliaments, the right of the Prime Minister to choose the date of the election at the most favourable time to him will be removed. A Government that loses a no confidence vote will still be kicked out, and if no plausible alternative can be found and election will be held. So to say it’s about holding on to power is to talk nonsense.

  • @Grammar Police

    Did you bother to read Heather’s comment? Did you bother to read Clare’s article in full?

    We’ve had the announcement, people are now questioning the process. The Guardian story is one of many sources informing the debate. Any number of those sources may at some point be incorrect. If you only rely on the one source to inform you, then it is you at fault, not the informant.

    I don’t think there is anyone here commenting, who does not want to see the end to child detention. What I want to make sure of is that its abolition is not used as cover for even more draconian measures.

  • Clare and Malcolm:
    Sorry – “just not detaining them” is half an answer. No one is saying you should detain them. It’s clearly a bad thing.

    But so is abandoning them on some skanky housing estate in sub-standard housing – because there are 4.5m on the housing waiting list and that’s all there is to spare. And without experienced social workers attached to their case, and ensuring they have access to medical care, advice in their own language, etc.

    I’m asking because I don’t know: do we actually have the structure in place to ensure if you close the detention centres tomorrow, they won’t just end up having to fend for themselves in the wider community? If so, great. Shut them tomorrow.

    Or will it be like ‘care in the community?’ – close the old asylums and wind up with the mentally ill clogging up prisons instead? The half-answer it that is ” don’t jail them.” But unless you have alternative provision and proper support in place, where do they end up? In jail or living rough. Out of frying pan…

  • That the point. Most people believe that these children and their families have been at these centres since their arrival in Britain. That is of course not the case. Many have lived in the country for years, waiting to have their immigration status determined. Most have been removed from the community they have lived in, and in many cases grown up in, to be detained awaiting final deportation notice. This can be a very long process in many cases.

    This is where the debate should start. So then the question to be asked is what should happen to those facing final deportation notice? Should we fear that some may chose to disappear under the radar? Should we worry if they do? Or should we house them in centres? What type of centres? Should they provide all the support services that will be required? Or just the basic deportation centre? I am as yet unsure of any ‘third way’.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Sep '10 - 12:41am

    Yes, this is what’s worrying me: I think rather a lot of people are assuming that when the government talks about taking time to come up with alternatives, it’s because they’re being responsible and not kicking people out on the street. That’s not the case. They’re trying to come up with something that does the job they think detention does – preventing families from avoiding deportation and deterring others from doing so, or even exercising their rights to appeal – without being so obviously cruel that Lib Dems can’t accept it. Note the comments by Clare and by Heather above – the government is continuing to take families with children out of their homes and into detention. The alternative to doing that is simply not to do it. Everything else is a smokescreen.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Sep '10 - 7:45am

    Cassie, these families are living in the community when they are dawn-raided and detained.

    Those are the ones whose claims have been processed, determined to not have a legitimate reason for asylum, have illegally overstayed their deadline to leave, and are being deported. They aren’t a huge problem, we just have to get the deportation process moving faster so they aren’t held for more than a day or two.

    The problem is the ones who have been locked up for a long time for no good reason, and are hence not “living in the community”.

  • What many people do not understand is that many children have been born here, their parent/s have been waiting so long for a decision on their case. The UK may be all they know, no matter how hard the circumstances they have been living in.
    Ann Owers HMIP, has said in several reports that decisions involving children should be made in the child’s best interest. I agree, no matter what the interests of the immigration service are.
    If detaining children is damaging and wrong we should stop it now, never mind waiting for an alternative, which at the moment, seems could be equally as bad. Until we have a system that treats people fairly there are going to be problems with people accepting any decision. I would fight to keep my children safe from harm and I expect most people would too.
    I was very interested in the manifesto idea to have an independent agency to make decisions, not a government, target -led system. Up to 30% of decisions are currently overturned at appeal, and that’s just 30% of the people who manage to make an appeal, many solicitors will drop a case for appeal, many asylum seekers have to represent themselves at appeal in a system that is very complicated and difficult to understand, even for someone with a good education and understanding of English.

  • The sad fact is that detention centres were created to address a media-fuelled clamour by sections of the public opposed to illegal immigrants. Labour responded to this media pressure, the Tories seem comfortable with it (no comment from ‘family man’ Cameron), and most shamefully of all, there seems little public appetite to end this practice. At present, only the Lib Dems are pushing for action and we appear isolated. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up. We have been here before (remember the war?).

    The key to this issue is to win the battle to convince the public that this practice is shameful to us all, that it belittles us and undermines our long traditions of fairness and tolerance. If we are happy to join the nations of the world who have little respect for humanity then we must expect that one day humanity will have little respect for us.

  • Esme Madill 17th Sep '10 - 8:56am

    Cassie I completely agree that the situation of many asylum seekers living in the community is not ideal. However detention centres are prisons and are seen as such. Among the asylum seeking families I work with detention centres are called ‘the camp’ – children describe how in detention guards made their mothers cry, how they were sick and afraid, how younger siblings sobbed, stopped eating food, crawled under the bed and refused to come out and mostly they talk of a desperate desire to go back to their schools and see their friends. Many asylum seekers in the community are living in poor housing, with inadequate support while dealing with memories of past traumas and future fears but the alternative to this is not detention – it is an asylum system that affords all those who seek sanctuary legal representation, an opportunity to present their case and respect and support while their application is considered.

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