By Simon Parker
A year ago, the coalition pledged to halt all child detention by this very day. Yet the recent news that six children were held in three separate detention facilities by the UK Border Agency in March comes as no surprise to campaigners who have warned that the UKBA is deliberately flouting Nick Clegg’s pledge to end the ‘moral outrage’ of child detention.
Home Office statistics reveal that four children — one aged under five — were held in Tinsley House, near Gatwick Airport in March 2011. An older teenager was held at Gatwick’s Brook House and a child aged between 12 and 16 was detained at Colnbrook, the Harmondsworth facility built to category B prison standard. In February a child aged between 12 and 16, believed to be unaccompanied, was held at the Campsfield House immigration removal centre for adult males near Oxford.
This month new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ is due to open in a former special needs school in the village of Pease Pottage near Gatwick. Tinsley House is being expensively refurbished as a high security detention facility to accommodate families deemed too “disruptive” for Pease Pottage – in other words, anyone who protests against alleged mistreatment or lack of due process, including those engaging in hunger strikes.
Central to the Border Agency’s planning application to Mid Sussex County Council was that the new facility at Pease Pottage will ‘have a homely feel’. ’Most importantly. . . the facility will be part-operated by a well known national children’s charity [Barnardo’s], who are already working with the UKBA in relation to its design and way it will function.’
The Council took on trust the UKBA’s claim that ‘the security for the site will not be greatly different to the existing school’. Homely design functions include a 2.3m perimeter fence, floodlighting, CCTV, internal and external room locks, and a new internal fenced ‘buffer [area]…to prevent the opportunity for people with access to the boundary fence from having contact with the occupants’.
Little mention was made in the public planning hearing that the firm responsible for security will be G4S—a company that may face corporate manslaughter charges as a consequence of the tragic death of Jimmy Mubenga while being restrained by four of its security guards on a flight to Angola.
A number of charities and campaign organisations who took part in the government’s child detention review process last summer feel frustrated and betrayed by the UKBA whose real agenda has never changed from regarding detention and enforced removal as a key aspect of immigration control. But few have publicly opposed the coalition government’s enforced returns policy for families, or the retention of Tinsley House as a family detention facility, or the opening of Pease Pottage.
Other groups have gone beyond passivity and thrown their weight behind the government’s new detention policy. Citizens UK, the self-styled ‘home of community organising in Britain’, has, bizarrely, claimed credit for single-handedly ending child detention, while collaborating with the UKBA, specifically helping to ensure that asylum seekers go quietly. Citizens UK is identifying ‘community sponsors . . . who have a pre-existing relationship of trust . . .with an asylum seeker’, offering ‘ongoing, pastoral support to the individual/family going through the asylum process which is of benefit to both the applicant and UKBA’.
By contrast, the ‘Keep Your Promise’ campaign, launched at the beginning of the year by End Child Detention Now, has resulted in over 2,000 postcards being sent to 10 Downing Street from dozens of faith groups, refugee community organisations and local Student Action for Refugees groups calling on Cameron and Clegg to honour their commitment to end child detention. A parallel campaign against the collaboration of Barnardo’s with the detention of children has successfully targeted the charity’s network of shops and fund-raising events.
The UKBA says the new system’s fairness and kindness will be ensured by a new ‘Independent Family Returns Panel’ providing ‘independent advice . . . on the method of removal . . . of individual families when an ensured return is necessary’. Yet the panel has no powers to challenge or overturn a decision to seek removal, and the UKBA or the immigration minister can ignore its advice, if for example the panel recommends that a family should not be detained.
The new chairman of the Independent Family Returns Panel is Chris Spencer, who was made redundant from his £120,000+ post as director of Children’s Services at Hillingdon Council in February. While seeking to assure Children and Young People Now that he has not always seen ‘eye to eye’ with the UKBA, Spencer nevertheless envisaged circumstances in which ‘detention at Tinsley House’ could be ‘used as a last resort’ for families if ‘every other avenue’ has ‘been explored fully prior to detention of the whole family’.
Chris Spencer’s new job reprises his role as joint chair of a QUANGO known as the ADCS/ADASS Asylum Seekers Task Force on which representatives from the UKBA and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services met to discuss and plan UK asylum policy, and in particular the safeguarding and welfare of children.
Spencer’s fellow joint chair at ADCS/ADASS, Pauline Newman (formerly Director of Children’s Services at Manchester City Council), has also been chosen by the government to serve on the Independent Family Returns Panel along with John Donaldson, former head of Immigration and Emergency Services at Glasgow City Council and Philip Ishola head of the Asylum and Immigration Service at the London Borough of Harrow, all of whom were previously members of the Asylum Seekers Task Force.
In its contribution to the Review into Ending the Detention of Children for Immigration Purposes the Asylum Seekers Task Force (along with the English, Welsh and Scottish Local Government Associations) set out its position on the detention of children and families. Far from seeing its role as defending and protecting vulnerable children and families, it is clear that the members of the Task Force, including the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, sought to push for a more aggressive and proactive stance to enforced family removals by the Home Office:
While it is accepted that removal of families that do not wish to leave can be extremely difficult, it is suggested that UKBA must put more resource and effort into increasing the removal rate of failed asylum seekers. A more proactive removal and enforcement policy to address key issues in removing unsuccessful asylum seekers is needed to reinforce the message that not complying does have consequences.
And what might those consequences involve?
In short: the detention of children.
Referring to the pre-existing child detention policy in Scotland, the Asylum Seekers Task Force and the Welsh, Scottish and English Local Government Associations remarked:
The government may wish to consider placing limits on the use of detaining children, while they develop alternatives. This could include limiting the use of detention to families who are immediately removable and for a short, limited period of time. Children should not, under any circumstances, be transported from Scotland to Yarlswood [sic] to be detained. It may be appropriate to make the decision to detain subject to external review.
In other words, despite the government’s stated policy not to detain children, the body whose senior membership overlaps with the new so-called Independent Family Returns Panel thinks that the detention of children should be ‘limited’ rather than abolished, and only when and if the government thinks it appropriate. The same ‘if it pleases the minister’ approach applies even to the policy of externally reviewing the decision to detain.
When the formal recruitment to the ‘independent’ panel starts next month, the UKBA will once again be doing the recruiting.
Some final questions for Anne Marie Carrie, the Barnardo’s chief executive who insists she will speak out if children are ‘routinely detained’ in the ‘homely’ surroundings of the Pease Pottage pre-removal detention facility.
If, as claimed, families will be detained only as a ‘last resort’, why is the Independent Family Returns Panel scheduled to meet twice a week and why will the new facility operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week all year round? And how many children’s drawings of security guards dragging parents into vans will the charity’s play workers pin on the wall before Ms Carrie speaks out against, or better still gets out of the detention trade?
Simon Parker teaches politics and urban studies at the University of York. He is a coordinator of the campaign group End Children Detention Now and a co-founder of Refugee Action York.