o The Guardian, Tuesday 23 October 2012 21.00 BST
"Nick Clegg boasts that child detention is over, but the coalition's own figures reveal otherwise
The report published today by HM Inspectorate of Prisons into the government's first "family friendly" detention facility for parents and children awaiting forced removal from the UK is a mixed bag. The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, describes the unit – Cedars, near Gatwick – as an "exceptional facility".
But there is also plenty of criticism in his report. Hardwick highlights the unacceptable force used against a pregnant woman in a wheelchair and flags up force used on six of 39 families placed in the facility. He adds that children became very distressed during removals, and says it was not possible to measure the psychological impact of that process on them. Incidents of self-harm along with shortcomings in healthcare and training were also pointed out.
What this report does not do is address two of the continuing controversies surrounding the detention of children for immigration purposes. But its publication is a timely reminder that they are a long way from resolution.
The first concerns the fact that the coalition government in general, and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in particular, have maintained a consistent narrative that child detention has ended. The government's own data relating to numbers of children detained proves this is not true.
The second is the continued and controversial involvement of the children's charity Barnardo's, which has a contract with government to staff the centre alongside G4S, the firm behind the Olympics security fiasco. G4S has been the subject of many allegations of assault by immigration detainees including Jimmy Mubenga, who died during an attempt to remove him.
The Lib Dems promised to end child detention in their 2010 manifesto, and they insist they have delivered on this objective. Clegg received much adulation from the organisation Citizens UK at his party's conference last month for "ending" child detention. Basking in their gratitude, Clegg said: "We're not accustomed to being thanked for pledges we've kept."
Yet the government's own figures show that the number of children they are detaining is on the rise. A total of 91 children were detained last year. In the first six months of this year 107 children were detained, 35 of them not in the "family friendly" Cedars but in ordinary immigration removal centres such as Tinsley House, near Gatwick. Clegg is engaging in a form of doublespeak. In the face of the statistical evidence from his own government, he continues to insist that child detention has ended.
And what of Barnardo's, which attracted a flurry of controversy when it was announced that it would be working with UK Border Agency to help staff Cedars? The children's charity insisted that if certain "red lines" were crossed, it would walk away from the contract. The red lines include disproportionate use of force, use of Tinsley House as an overflow facility, and the detention of families more than twice. Hardwick stated that one family was detained three times, and several were detained twice, as well as describing the use of force on the pregnant woman as "unacceptable". Alison Worsley, Barnardo's deputy director of strategy, insists: "We have always been clear that our involvement at Cedars does not stop us speaking out on behalf of asylum-seeking families. We raise any concerns with UKBA at the time that they arise at the appropriate level, from operations up to ministers, and have already spoken out twice publicly. Furthermore we will continue to call for improvements to the family returns process as a whole."
The government insists that only families who have exhausted their appeal rights will end up in Cedars. Yet nine of the 39 families who have been detained there were released, suggesting that their appeals were not exhausted, and so they should not have been there in the first place.
The government has tried extremely hard to convince us that child detention has ended, but this year's figures continue to creep upwards, compared with last year's. Those who are campaigning to end the detention of children say their work is not yet done. In the meantime Clegg and the organisations who champion him for ending child detention need to stick to the facts. The fixtures and fittings at Cedars are prettier than in the rest of the government's immigration removal estate, but Hardwick's report has highlighted some of the same concerns that existed about child detention in its previous incarnation in various immigration removal centres. If the government really wants to end child detention, it should stop detaining children."
Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 October 2012 15:14