Readers of this blog will be aware that we are sometimes critical of the working of our democracy and the parliamentary process. There is another side however, and today we give extracts from a speech by Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, made on 20th November but not reported as widely as it deserves.
Today is universal children’s day. It is also the anniversary of the 1959 declaration of the rights of the child and of the 1989 convention on the rights of the child. It therefore seems a suitable day to try to bring the attention of Ministers to bear on one of the most tragic and socially excluded groups of children in Britain in 2007—children in immigration detention. Such children are uniquely vulnerable, partly because of the media climate around immigration and asylum, so it is possible to treat them in a way in which the state would not treat other children in this country. Children in immigration detention are vulnerable because, as we all know, when party leaders consult the polls, they find over and over again that one of the issues that people are most concerned about is immigration, asylum and borders. The Government have chosen to meet that fear and the concern reflected in opinion polls with an increasingly draconian system of immigration control.
This group of children is also uniquely vulnerable because who speaks for them? I know, because I have spoken to Ministers about this, that Ministers get constant pressure from Labour MPs in marginal seats who are worried about public opinion on immigration, and MPs who are calling for ever stricter and more draconian regimes... That is why this group of children is uniquely exposed and uniquely vulnerable.
I remind colleagues that when the question of detaining children
originally came up, in the 1998 White Paper entitled “Fairer, Faster
and Firmer”, the Government
were saying that families should not normally be detained for more than
a few days and only if they were due for removal. The starting position
was that the detention of children and their families would be the
exception rather than the rule and would last a few days at most. That
was the basis on which MPs put the legislation through the House. The
position now is that children are being detained in detention centres
for up to three months and beyond. I shall come to the facts of the situation later in my
remarks, but if people think about it, it is extraordinary that one of
the wealthiest liberal democracies in the world should find itself
locking up children arbitrarily for indefinite periods. We came to that
position as a result of media and political pressure ...
Let me begin to talk about the conditions in which the children are held. There are general issues that make those conditions deplorable. The first general issue that makes the detention of children for immigration purposes deplorable is the arbitrary nature of the detention process. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the fact that a child who has committed a criminal offence and is put in prison, who is serving a sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure—that is how sentencing is termed for children under a certain age—has more rights than a child held in immigration detention and is dealt with in a more transparent way. Immigration detention is not ordered or sanctioned by a court; it is an administrative power. People are not being detained because they have committed a criminal offence. That means that there is a lack of transparency and accountability ...
I should like to allow colleagues to hear the voices of children in detention, because in the debate on this issue—which is driven by concerns about polling, pressures from MPs and the latest front page of the Daily Express, among other things—not enough attention is paid to the voices of children. The Children’s Commissioner for England visited Yarl’s Wood in 2005. His report said many things about what he saw, including one thing that I thought disturbing: “During our visit to Yarl’s Wood, we spoke to a number of children”... “Not one of these children had any clear idea or, in the case of some children, any idea at all, of why they were detained at Yarl’s Wood.” It is one thing to say that a robust immigration control system requires the detention of children, but what immigration control system requires the detention of young children who do not know why they are there or what will happen to them?
A Save the Children report quoted the mother of a detained child: “After the detention Michael was in a bad way. The bedwetting was a problem again and he had nightmares. He wouldn’t go upstairs without me. At 9 pm when I took him to bed, I had to go to bed as well because he wouldn’t let me leave...Michael was afraid of the police coming again. He was always afraid.”