‘Back-slapping’ Lib Dems ignore reality of continued child detention

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  By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP has said the Liberal Democrats are celebrating a job half-done on child detention, as Home Office figures show the number of children being detained doubled in the last year.

The Liberal-Democrat conference agenda yesterday included a presentation with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and MP Sarah Teather, who was demoted during the recent Cabinet reshuffle and lost her post as a minister in the Education Department.  The purpose of the celebration was “to celebrate the Liberal Democrat achievement in government of ending child detention for immigration purposes”.

Mr Clegg also used his speech to the conference on Saturday to claim: “We have ended child detention.”

However despite the Lib Dem claim that they had ended the practice of confining children in immigration detention centres, Home Office figures show the number of children entering detention in the second quarter of 2012 was 60, a rise from 26 at the same time last year.

The number of children held in Cedars family detention unit, set up as an ‘alternative’ to detention at Yarl’s Wood, rose from 11 to 37.

These figures exclude a significant number of children who arrive unaccompanied and are wrongly detained as adults, an issue raised in a report by the Refugee Council earlier this year.  Since the children arrive in the UK without documentation, ascertaining their correct age is not always possible.  

However the Refugee Council report found that UK Border authorities treat young people as adults on the basis of nothing more than a casual assessment by an immigration officer that the young person is over 18 years old, contrary to the UK Government’s own guidelines for dealing with such cases.  

The report examined two groups of young people held in immigration detention centres, all of whom had been assessed by immigration staff as being over 18.  After the intervention of the Refugee Council’s specialist age dispute advisor, 72% of the first group and 58% of the second group were found to be under 18 and released from detention.    

There are currently 354 young people whose age is disputed or uncertain being held in UK detention centres.  

A report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCCE), published in January this year, found that unaccompanied children arriving in UK were routinely being detained, in contravention of UNCRC standards and the UK Government’s own expressed policy.  The report documented cases of children being detained on arrival until extensive interviews into their background were completed, and recommended that such children be interviewed only after they had been transferred into local authority care.

The report also recommended that attempts to remove a young person whose age was in dispute from the country should cease until the local authority’s social services department had carried out a correct age assessment test to determine that the young person is over the age of 18.  

SNP Home Office spokesperson Pete Wishart MP said:

“It’s an absolute scandal that the number of children being locked up in detention centres has doubled in the last year. These are families who are often fleeing violence in countries like Iran, Afghanistan or Syria – what kind of country locks children up for this?

“Nick Clegg once called child detention a ‘moral outrage’ and ‘state sponsored cruelty’ – yet now it’s on the rise under his watch.  The Lib Dems should be appalled that the number of children entering detention is on an upward trend, and their conference should discuss this reality not ignore it.

“The sixty children who entered detention in the last quarter won’t be joining in the celebrations this weekend.  There is no excuse for putting children under lock and key, and plenty of evidence of the severe mental and physical damage which it can cause.

“The Lib Dems should stop slapping themselves on the back for a job half-done and pull out all the stops to end child detention once and for all.”