Tom Brake MP writes… Labour has a lot to apologise for on immigration – it should start with child detention

On the subject of immigration, Ed Miliband was in apologetic mood this week. And not before time.

Labour has a lot to apologise for on immigration – not just the dog whistle ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ rhetoric and an attitude to the views of ordinary people that resulted in Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ slur.

Miliband could apologise for not reintroducing the exit checks abolished by the Tories and allowing our border controls to descend into farce.

He could apologise for wildly underestimating the number of migrants from Eastern Europe when new countries joined the EU.

But if there is one thing Labour really should be sorry for it is the disgrace of child detention for immigration purposes.

Under Labour, thousands of children and young people were locked up, often for months on end, for the mistakes of their parents.

These innocent children were often left physically and emotionally scarred by their experience in conditions that have no place in a modern, civilised country.

And this was happening on an industrial scale. In Labour’s last five years in office 7,075 children were detained – four children a day.

This national tragedy was something that the Liberal Democrats campaigned against, fought to include in the Coalition Agreement, and delivered in our first year in office.

The Liberal Democrats have taken a lot of knocks since joining the Coalition but the ending of child detention is one of those decisions that remind us why it is worth having Liberals in government for the first time in generations.

As my fellow Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton said after losing a close election in Edinburgh last year, if losing was part payment for the ending child detention then “I accept it, with all my heart.”

To the critics who claim that the child detention system has been replaced and not ended, this could not be further from the truth.

The current practices for children awaiting deportation cannot be – and should not be – in any way compared to the shameful past. Children are no longer held for weeks on end as they were under Labour.

Only on the rare occasions when a family was denied entry at the border and there was no immediate return flight, have they been held in pre-departure accommodation until the next available flight, usually within 24 to 48 hours.

And the conditions they are held in simply bear no resemblance to those they replaced – prison-like centres in places like Yarl’s Wood replaced by family-friendly centres run with support from groups like Barnardos.

Getting to grips with our farcical immigration system while treating children with decency and humanity is not easy, but the Coalition is succeeding where Labour failed.

Labour has much to apologise for on immigration. It should start with child detention.

* Tom Brake was the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington from 1997 to 2019.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • So the Coalition has minimised child detention rather than ended it.

  • Daniel Henry 26th Jun '12 - 5:45pm

    Duncan’s right – best to be honest about the wording else it’ll come back to bite us.

  • I’m broadly liberal, but if there’s one thing I fully respect about Thathcher, it was the Primary Purpose Rule. New Labour, namely Jack Straw, should apologise for abolishing it. It was one of the most effective measures to counter bogus marriages from places like Pakistan.

  • Elliot Bidgood 26th Jun '12 - 6:01pm

    While Labour does has a lot to apologise for on immigration, criticising it for both “the dog whistle ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ rhetoric” and for an “attitude to the views of ordinary people that resulted in Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ slur” seems a bit contradictory.

    On child detention, however, I wasn’t even aware of that issue, to be honest. Good on you for ending it, and Labour should address it.

  • Surprising then to read that the Independent Monitoring Board report published last month stated that children are being held, including overnight, in “degrading and disgraceful” conditions at Heathrow Airport by the UK Border Agency (UKBA)”. The report pointed out that, in 2011, up to 3,000 people were held for more than 12 hours, requiring many – including children – to spend the night there rather than at immigration removal centres. Inspectors found that “the rooms where children were held had no natural light, no access to the open air, and no sleeping arrangements.”

  • “Miliband could apologise for not reintroducing the exit checks abolished by the Tories and allowing our border controls to descend into farce.”

    The point of ‘exit checks’ is what exactly? Unless you subscribe to the ridiculous idea that the government should be able to supply an exact figure for the number of people in the country at any time of the day or night (a product of the warped mind of Damian Green), or the equally pointless and downright offensive idea, which seems to be assumed in our border system, that we need permission from the state to leave the country (welcome to east Germany), then there is no reason whatsoever for exit checks.

    Another stupid waste of money to keep racists happy.

  • An excellent posting, and a story about ending children being locked in detention centres before removal after living in this country, that needs to be told again and again.
    It is shameful that our supposedly civilised country behaved in such a barbaric way. there are still many issues to tackle, including the recently revealed issue of children arriving in this country, but at least a start has been made on an issue known about and camapigned about for year and years.

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