Category: House of Lords
Today OurKingdom publishes Clare Sambrook’s damning indictment of the UK Border Agency’s systematic failure to protect some of the most vulnerable children in Britain – children whose parents have survived imprisonment, torture and rape in the countries they have fled only to find themselves under lock and key for failing to persuade the Home Office that their claim for asylum is genuine.
Children who became victims of abuse while in detention and whose voices can no longer be heard because the UK Border Agency has forcibly removed the victims from the jurisdiction of the UK justice system.
It is a harrowing story, but also an alarming account of institutional collusion, cover up and lying which reveals the complete lack of accountability of Britain’s highly profitable outsourced security state and the politicians and civil servants who are still bent on serving and protecting it.
The appalling Rochdale sexual abuse scandal prompted long-overdue scrutiny of our children’s homes. Another national disgrace ripe for exposure is the UK Border Agency’s serial and repugnant oppression and abuse of vulnerable children over more than a decade. Today OurKingdom publishes Clare Sambrook’s exposé of the Border Agency’s abuse of children and its relentless misrepresentation of evidence of harm. We call upon Parliament to hold ministers, the Home Office and its ugly agency to account. (The material that follows is distressing.)
Lunchtime at Yarl’s Wood
Sunday, 20 September 2009, the UK Border Agency’s Yarl’s Wood detention centre run by commercial contractors Serco.
A woman enters a room and finds a five-year-old child inserting his finger into another five-year-old’s anus, moving it backwards and forwards.
The little boy whose anus has been penetrated tells his mother that one of the other boy’s much older brothers has done this to him several times before. He complains of pain in his bottom, has become emotionally distant, will not let his mother touch him.
A GP employed by Serco does not examine the boy internally, concludes that his bottom is sore because he has scratched it, says psychological effects are a matter of “wait and see”. Bedfordshire children’s services decide not to take the matter further.
There is no investigation of the young people who might have sexually abused the little boys, or of whether they might pose a continuing threat to other children within the detention centre.
The mother’s pleas for a specialist’s opinion, for therapeutic help for her son, for an independent investigation, are all refused.
The Border Agency’s so-called “Children’s Champion”, whose job is to protect and promote children’s welfare and safety, fails to intervene. The Children’s Society, a Church of England charity that provides welfare services to Yarl’s Wood families, also fails to act. Mother and son are rapidly transferred out of Yarl’s Wood and removed from Britain.
A special culture
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this story, which is fully documented as we shall see, is that it holds so few surprises for people familiar with the Border Agency’s special culture.
Paediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists and child welfare experts who have exposed inconvenient truths have seen their work and reputation traduced by Border Agency officials. Their advice has been ignored, summarily dismissed, even derided. Viable alternatives to detention offered by reputable experts have been ignored. Parliament has been repeatedly misled.
Doctors, nurses and charities who step inside the culture may forget their critical faculties, their moral compass and professional ethics.
This dossier highlights just some of the Border Agency’s attempts to misrepresent evidence that children, including the sexually abused little boy, have been harmed in its care. It follows the pattern of misrepresentation and denial all the way to the current “compassionate approach” to child detention — a practice that continues despite the Coalition promise to end it.
An exciting growth market
For the Agency’s commercial partners, security companies G4S, Serco and the rest, immigration detention is one growth market within an “exciting” outsourcing boom, grounded in cosy relations with ministers and civil servants.
The Labour government’s aggressive acceleration of the detention policy in 2001 gave the security industry new opportunities to extract profit from every step of the process: arrest, transport, detention, removal — even healthcare and social work within the rapidly expanding “detention estate”.
The Border Agency and its commercial contractors set about the raiding and detention of families with remarkable enthusiasm and disregard for children’s welfare, detaining up to 2000 children a year in prison-like conditions, sometimes for weeks and months on end, against all professional advice.
The Home Office and its Agency brushed aside repeated warnings fromsuccessive European Union Human Rights Commissioners and repeated recommendations from the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), urging over years that the detention of children should happen only in exceptional circumstances, and decisions must be based on “independent and immediate welfare and needs assessments of each child.”
For the border control mind, and commercial contractors’ culture rooted in the cash transit business (G4S), and transport and maintenance (Serco), “children’s welfare” has proved an inscrutable concept.
An HMIP team visiting Yarl’s Wood in the Spring of 2005 found three children who had been detained immediately before their GCSE exams and one autistic five year old so distressed she had not eaten for five days.
England’s first Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, called repeatedly for detention to cease, saying that nothing in his 30-year career as a children’s doctor prepared him for his first visit to Yarl’s Wood.
His first report, “An announced visit to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre 31st October 2005” records that none of the children he encountered had any idea why they were locked up. Many had been in Britain for years or were born here. One boy in school uniform had been snatched with his mother as he was about to catch his school bus, with no opportunity to say goodbye to his classmates. The children were subjected to body searches, sometimes several times a day. Three had been locked up for more than 57 days.
Handcuffs in hospital
The security industry’s priorities, culture and clout shine in a chilling “Memorandum of Understanding” struck in 2005 between Yarl’s Wood’s managers, GSL, and Bedford Hospital which empowered GSL to handcuff children who needed hospital care. The document (in my possession), which defines a child as “a human being up to the age of 18”, permits GSL escorts to overrule medical objections to the handcuffing of child patients. If doctors or nurses persist in objecting, GSL escorts may insist the cuffs stayed on, pending a decision from a higher authority, namely the GSL Duty Shift Manager who would rule on whether the cuffs stayed on or not, or whether to delay medical treatment “until alternative security measures can be put in place”.
“For staff in general the centre is like a human clearing house,” Yarl’s Wood chaplain Larry Wright told a team from HM Inspectorate of Prisons who visited the detention centre in February 2006. Their report, “Inquiry into the quality of health care at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre”, published in October 2006, found multiple healthcare inadequacies, compounded by the Border Agency’s “unresponsiveness . . . to clinical concerns about an alleged history of torture or adverse medical consequences of continued detention.”
When clinical concerns were raised, the Inspectors found, “the information was not systematically addressed or actioned. Nor was independent medical opinion sought or adhered to.”
HM Prisons Inspectorate urged the government quickly to transfer responsibility for detention centre healthcare from the Home Office to the National Health Service. A very important recommendation, since the Home Office’s behaviour towards people in its care was plainly distorted by its over-riding concern to police national borders.
Serco took over the running of Yarl’s Wood (including healthcare) from GSL in April 2007 with an eight-year contract valued at “around £85 million”.
That same year, under pressure, the government instructed the Border Agency to require all staff dealing with children to undergo mandatory training in child safeguarding. Instead of commissioning an independent, accredited provider, the Agency’s “Children’s Champion” turned to unaccredited G4S. Since then, without any independent scrutiny or evaluation, G4S has trained 7,800 UKBA personnel in “keeping children safe”.**
“Wholly inaccurate” records of child detainees
Children were anything but safe. In February 2008 HM Inspectorate of Prisonslearned that some children detained time and again had been locked up for a cumulative 275 days. “Wholly inaccurate” official figures had calculated their cumulative totals at 14 and 17 days.
Visiting Yarl’s Wood again, in May 2008, Children’s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green found that “Children’s physical and mental health rarely appears to inform the decision to maintain detention,” and medical assessments were poor.
In his report on the visit, published in April 2009, Aynsley-Green notes that one mother locked up at Yarl’s Wood was a victim of torture with “a severe depressive illness” and “auditory hallucinations”, yet her two-year-old son was assessed by detention centre medical staff as just a “happy boy”. The mother “was prescribed anti-depressants and put on suicide watch in the light of three suicide attempts. Yet no mental health support was provided, nor was an assessment of her parenting abilities conducted.” Aynsley-Green repeated his call for child detention to end.
Roll calls, body searches, sex games
The first peer-reviewed clinical study of children locked up at Yarl’s Wood,“The mental and physical health difficulties of children held within a British immigration detention center,” appeared in the medical journal “Child Abuse & Neglect” in October 2009.
The authors, Lorek et al, a team of NHS paediatricians and a clinical psychologist, recorded children’s “increased fear due to being suddenly placed in a facility resembling a prison”, their weight loss, headaches and tummy pains, their clinical depression and anxiety, the trouble they had sleeping, how older children were so stressed they wet their beds and soiled their pants.
The Lorek team described the body searches, the photographing and the fingerprinting of the children, the roll calls, the ID cards they had to carry at all times, the ten locked doors between freedom and the family centre, the steep deterioration in parents’ mental health and parenting abilities, the self-harm and the suicide attempts.
And the sex games. One father, “spontaneously complained that he had found his daughter in the centre without any clothes on. His child explained that she had been encouraged to undress and play ‘sex games’ instigated by another detained child.”
Another mother, “spontaneously commented on the sexualized behavior of children within the center”.
The doctors wrote: “The high levels of mental and physical health difficulties detected support the view that detention, even for short periods of time, is detrimental and not appropriate for children.”
(One of the authors speaks about their findings on the BBC here.)
The study was sent to members of the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee ahead of their visit to Yarl’s Wood on 15 October 2009 in the course of their inquiry into the detention of children in the immigration system. (The committee’s duties include scrutinising the Border Agency’s work). Committee chairman Keith Vaz MP later reported to the House: “Our visit was somewhat marred by the Home Office officials’ terrible anxiety about the Select Committee visit.”
What the Border Agency did next is quite shocking.
An ex-policeman assesses the medical evidence
The Agency’s director responsible for children and their welfare, the curiously entitled “Director of Criminality and Detention”, Dave Wood, decided to offer his own assessment of the clinical evidence.
Dave Wood is not a paediatrician or a child psychologist. He is a former Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner who led the Met’s Anti-Corruption Squad as Detective Chief Superintendent. (He gave evidence to theIndependent Police Complaints Commission’s 2006 inquiry allegations of police corruption in the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation.)
In September 2009, in oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Wood had said that although absconding wasn’t an issue — “it’s not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond” — families should be locked up anyway, because the lack of detention, “would act as a significant magnet and pull to families from abroad”.
In a memo to the Home Affairs Committee, dated November 2009, Wood set out to be “helpful” and “provide some further details in response to concern you may have about the contents of the [Lorek] report.”
The study, he claimed, “was undertaken without any reference to the UK Border Agency or its clinicians. At no point were healthcare or centre staff, who would have known the children, asked for their views or comments. A number of criticisms are therefore made without any corroborated evidence, or with any opportunity for the centre to comment.”
(Here is Wood on local BBC TV again asserting that the doctors failed to discuss their research).
This was demonstrably false. Lorek’s peer-reviewed study clearly demonstrates their contact with Yarl’s Wood clinicians; indeed the Lorek team’s psychologist had recommended that five parents should be “assessed by a psychiatrist as a matter of urgency due to the severity of their mental health difficulties and the level of risk”.
Meetings the Agency claimed did not happen
What’s more, Home Office documents (in my possession) record that two of the authors presented their research to Border Agency officials in a roundtable discussion held at the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England on 19 June 2007, during which Jeremy Oppenheim, the Border Agency’s then “Children’s Champion” invited the doctors to make a further presentation inside Yarl’s Wood.
And they did, at a formal meeting on 27 September 2007 entitled “Meeting to Discuss Health Impacts of Detention on Children”.
The 26 invitees listed on another Home Office document (in my possession) include Serco healthcare staff, Bedfordshire County Council Social Workers, a representative of security company G4S, the Border Agency’s Chief Immigration Officer Fiona Jack, its “Children’s Champion”, its Deputy Director of Enforcement Policy Stephanie Hutchinson-Hudson, its Head of Detention Brian Pollett and its Assistant Director, Detention Special Policy Unit, Simon Barrett.
According to the Home Office Agenda, at 10.10 am, after an introduction from the “Children’s Champion”, two of the authors, Dr Lorek and Dr Nesbitt, gave a presentation entitled, “Physical and Mental Health Difficulties of children within a UK Immigration Detention Centre”.
The Home Affairs Committee’s report, The Detention of Children in the Immigration System was published on 29 November 2009. It completely ignored the Lorek study.
It is hard to understand this significant omission. Perhaps MPs on the committee simply accepted Wood’s assertion that the study “was undertaken without any reference to the UK Border Agency or its clinicians.” It seems that they did not challenge him. But even if what he alleged were true, the weight of Lorek et al’s professional assessment surely ought to have commanded the respect of the committee and formed part of their report.
Still, the evidence of harm to children did not stay buried long.
Royal Colleges exhume evidence of harm
On 10 December 2009 The Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health issued a joint statement drawing upon Lorek et al’s evidence and urging the government to stop detaining children “without delay”.
Until detention stops, said the Colleges, detained children and young people should be referred immediately to Local Authority children’s social care as “children at risk of significant harm”. No child or young person with mental health problems or at risk of developing them should be detained. The Colleges, echoing urgent advice from HM Inspectorate of Prisons a full three years before, urged the government to put detention centre healthcare into the hands of the National Health Service and not the Home Office.
The Colleges’ widely publicised statement was backed by the Royal College of Nursing, the Association of Child Psychotherapists, British Association of Social Workers, the British Psychological Society and the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
But it cut no ice at the Border Agency, whose Director of Criminality and Detention Dave Wood assured The Guardian: “Treating children with care and compassion is a priority. Families at Yarl’s Wood should get the same level of care available on the NHS, and they do.”
On 14 December 2009, the Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael asked the Labour government when it would stop detaining children. He said: “The report published last week by the coalition of the royal medical colleges made it clear that children who are detained in immigration removal centres suffer from mental health problems and consider self-harm and occasionally even suicide.”
Minister Meg Hillier, briefed by officials a few days previously, parrotted the Border Agency’s false claim about Lorek et al’s research:
“Let me point out that the report in question . . . did not take into account the views of the clinicians who worked with those children and who know them.”
And so, again, medical evidence of children’s suffering was misrepresented and dismissed, and again Parliament was misled.
Security industry nurses see “jolly happy children”
Amid continuing grave concern about medical ethics and competence inside the “detention estate”, the Royal Colleges had reminded practitioners working for the Border Agency and its commercial contractors of the basic competencies of their craft — history-taking, examination, investigation, treatment, referral and record-keeping, and of their legal duty to declare children unfit to be detained where detention appears detrimental to their mental health or wellbeing.
Nurses employed by Serco at Yarl’s Wood routinely described child detainees in medical notes as “jolly” and “happy”, according to the third and final report on Yarl’s Wood from Sir Al Aynsley-Green in February 2010 (“The Children’s Commissioner for England’s follow up report to: the arrest and detention of children subject to immigration control”).
The father of a 12-year-old girl told the Children’s Commissioner’s team that she had been arrested, beaten, sexually abused and humiliated by Nigerian soldiers. On admission to Yarl’s Wood she was mute, refusing food for seven days. About one Yarl’s Wood child whose mother had been raped in Africa and was hepatitis B positive, Serco nurses wrote under family history, “nil of note”.
The Children’s Commissioner, an eminent paediatrician, reported that the Border Agency continued to send children unvaccinated to areas where TB is prevalent and measles and malaria endemic. More than a year after he had suggested it, the provision of bed nets was “still under consideration”. Aynsley-Green repeated his call for child detention to cease.
A covert attack on the Children’s Commissioner
The Border Agency had read the Children’s Commissioner’s report in advance of publication. Yet again, its response to expert medical advice was to go on the attack.
The Home Office press office circulated an unattributable and defamatory advance note to journalists, undermining the integrity of Aynsley-Green and his work. That extraordinary note, which invented inaccuracies in the report and then knocked them down, can be found here on page 13 of my own Parliamentary submission on official lying.
The black-ops briefing got results: Aynsley-Green’s February 2010 report was arguably under-reported in the media. And the Border Agency carried on misleading.
Agency officials and their commercial partners Serco gave a positive, upbeat presentation about children’s experience of detention to Bedford Borough Council’s Children’s Services Committee on 23 February 2010, assuring committee members that the Children’s Commissioner’s report contained “issues” that were “unsupported or factually incorrect”.
But inconvenient evidence of distress and physical damage kept on piling up. In March 2010 the government published Baroness Nuala O’Loan’s independent inquiry into evidence of widespread abuse of asylum detainees, including children, at the hands of Border Agency escort contractors, including G4S. The abuses had been documented in the 2008 Medical Justice reportOutsourcing Abuse. O’Loan’s inquiry found that there was “inadequate management of the use of force by the private sector companies”; she made 22 recommendations for change.
Readers might by now be able to guess what the Border Agency did next.
In a foreword to O’Loan’s report, Border Agency chief executive Lin Homer attacked the doctors and lawyers who had brought the abuses to light, accusing them of “seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors”.
Leaving aside the defamatory nature of Homer’s allegation against the doctors and lawyers, it is the case that “reputational risk” is a commercial matter and the proper concern of the companies themselves, their executives, directors and shareholders — not for the Home Office.
Only months after the Border Agency had dismissed the evidence of abuse by escort contractors, a previously healthy man called Jimmy Mubenga diedduring a form of “restraint” by private escorters G4S exposed as dangerous inOutsourcing Abuse.
The sexually abused little boy is not totally forgotten
The little boy sexually assaulted over and over again during his weeks locked up at Yarl’s Wood in the autumn of 2009 might have been forgotten by the Border Agency, its contractors and the resident children’s charity. But somebody else had found out about him.
The Children’s Commissioner’s team, in their review of the detention centre medical notes, had spotted the little boy’s horrible ordeal, had noted the lack of proper investigation, that safeguarding procedures had not been followed, had noted the mother’s desperate requests for independent investigation and medical examination, and that they had all been refused.
Sir Al Aynsley-Green sent a detailed and confidential report on the case to Bedford Borough Council, the UK Border Agency, Serco and Bedfordshire Local Safeguarding Children Board, whose Serious Case Review Panel commissioned an independent investigation in October 2009. The panel decided that “a legally qualified person, independent of all the participating agencies” should conduct the Review, and appointed a barrister and mental health review tribunal judge in December 2009, causing real anxiety to Border Agency executives and their commercial partners, Serco. The profitable business of locking up families at Yarl’s Wood, which served as a useful deterrent in border control, was in jeopardy.
Only weeks ahead of the 2010 General Election, and before the independent investigation had made its findings public, the Home Office handed Serco a £32 million contract, without competition, to carry on running Yarl’s Wood for three more years.
The Coalition Agreement of 12 May 2010 promised to end the detention of children, but instead of immediately ending it, immigration minister Damian Green said on 15 May that he was “launching a comprehensive review of alternatives to child detention, including opening a dialogue with relevant stakeholders, organisations and experts.”
To lead this Review, a legally qualified person, independent of all the participating agencies was not appointed. Damian Green turned instead to the Border Agency’s own Director of Criminality and Detention Dave Wood, who would co-chair a “working group” of invited civil society and voluntary sector groups. The other co-chair was the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund to whom besieged Border Agency executives had turned for help in the anxious months ahead of the General Election. The Fund’s representative, Patrick Wintour (founder of the Employability Forum), had engaged in private pre-election talks over months with officials — including chief executive Lin Homer, deputy chief executive Jonathan Sedgwick, the latest “Children’s Champion” Kristian Armstrong, and Dave Wood.
The Review started work formally on 1 June 2010. (Its terms of reference arehere.) Immigration minister Damian Green told Parliament on 17 June: “We are carrying out the review as fast as humanly possible, so that the detention of children for immigration purposes can end and a practical alternative be put in its place.”
That might have been Damian Green’s intention, but it was no part of the Border Agency’s plan.
A shameful account of institutional incompetence
On 14 June 2010 the Bedfordshire Local Safeguarding Children Board released an executive summary of the independent investigative report into the case of child sexual abuse that had been so disgracefully mishandled. The investigators found that the Border Agency, the Agency’s “Children’s Champion”, its independent social workers, Serco’s medical staff and social workers, Bedford Borough Council’s children’s services and the local police had all failed in their duties to safeguard children in the Border Agency’s care.
What’s more, Border Agency officials had — yet again —misrepresented evidence that children were being harmed and being put at risk of harm. The Bedfordshire independent inquiry found that executives misled ministers about the safeguarding shambles that failed the little boy, and that ministers, relying on the Agency’s misinformation, decided to carry on detaining children:
“UKBA provided information, on the basis of which a ministerial decision was made affecting the continued detention of children. Although that factual information included reference to the incident leading to this review, there was no evaluation of the impact that this incident had on the propriety of detention.”
Malcolm Stevens, a former lead Children’s Services Inspector with the government’s Social Services Inspectorate, described the findings as “a shameful account of institutional incompetence”.
Commenting in The Daily Telegraph on 18 June 2010, Stevens urged the government to “reconsider the wisdom of its decision to repeat the error of the previous government in allowing the organisation most culpable – the UK Border Agency – to lead its current review of services for children in detention.”
He went on: “From the recommendations of this review, if there is one thing on earth that Border Agency should not do, it is that.”
But the government did not reconsider, and the Border Agency carried on leading the Review, with thoroughly predictable consequences:
“All summer, the UKBA made it plain that they were not willing to give up the power to detain children, as part of the policy of ending the detention of children,” said one participant, Syd Bolton, co-director of the Refugee Children’s Rights Project, Children’s Legal Centre.
“In the many discussions about how to end detention held with the UKBA over that review period, it was clear that the UKBA simply would not entertain the possibility of a major plank of its border control powers being removed.” (Bolton was speaking on 26 March 2011 at the launch of End Child Detention Now’s “Keep Your Promise” campaign.)
Rebranding child detention
What emerged from the Review was not an alternative to detention, but detention rebranded.
A new detention facility called “Cedars” opened on 17 August 2011, with a new vocabulary (“family friendly” “pre-departure accommodation”), run by a familiar security company, G4S, and with the same fundamental safeguarding flaw highlighted in the Bedfordshire Safeguarding Children Board independent report on Yarl’s Wood, namely, “a gap in regulatory arrangements . . . no single agency has an adequate overarching responsibility for regulation of services to children in immigration detention”.
G4S ‘won’ the £15 million contract to run Cedars against no competition. (The name is a government acronym for Compassion, Empathy, Dignity, Respect and Support).
Contract-hungry children’s charity Barnardo’s provides welfare services and delivers, by its presence, a reassuring endorsement. When, last year, an independent doctor asked Barnardo’s to take action about the continuing practice of sending families to danger zones without essential immunisation and malarial protection, Barnardo’s chief executive Anne Marie Carrie replied: “G4S, the UKBA contractor for the site is contracturally responsible for ensuring appropriate health services to residents at Cedars,” and she had raised his concerns with the management team.
The doctor wrote to the G4S site manager and got a reply from the Border Agency in an envelope stamped with the G4S logo; it said malarial protection was a matter for the families and those who “have not arranged any malaria prevention will be provided with an information leaflet”.
A so-called “Independent Family Returns Panel” guards children’s welfare.One of its members is Dr John W. Keen, who has advised the Border Agency for years, and whose assessment of a vulnerable patient was deemed “irrational” and “tainted” by the then Mr Justice Leveson in a 2006 High Court Judgement.
The Border Agency’s office of “Children’s Champion” carries on regardless of its catastrophic failure to intervene on behalf of the sexually abused little boy at Yarl’s Wood, and Border Agency staff continue to be trained in child-safeguarding by G4S.
The Department of Health assumed policy responsibility for detention centre healthcare in April 2012; the transfer of budgetary responsibility is due, “subject to legislation”, by April 2014. (Hansard)
In the first quarter of this year 53 children were reported detained, far fewer than under Labour’s 2000-per-year peak, but higher than might have been inferred from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s December 2010 forecast of“tiny numbers of cases” detained as “an absolutely last resort”.
In March 2012 Dave Wood was promoted to the post of chief operating officer of the UK Border Agency. In April, the Home Office quietly appointed aschairman of the UKBA board a career investment banker, Philip Augar (ex NatWest and Shroeders).
The narrow thread of recent history exposed here resonates beyond the hard lives of asylum-seeker families.
Security companies G4S and Serco have moved far, far beyond their security-industry base, deep into our public sector, securing massive government contracts in policing, health, education, welfare.
Senior civil servant and ministerial loyalty to “our contractors”, as revealed in this case, is a recurring phenomenon that merits further inquiry and real vigilance as Britain undergoes what the Financial Times has called “the biggest wave of outsourcing since the 1980s”.
The pattern of Border Agency behaviour unfolded here suggests a rogue organisation, shielded by the Home Office, beyond accountability to Parliament and the public. Nobody has been held to account for the misleading of ministers, Parliament and the public over years, as a direct result of which thousands of innocent and vulnerable children have been locked up to the detriment of their health and wellbeing. Relations between the Border Agency and its contractors are intimate, enduring and enmeshed. Children remain at risk of harm.
The Home Affairs Select Committee should wake up to its duties, which include scrutinising the Border Agency’s work, call its executives to account for their repeated denial of evidence of children’s suffering, and urge the government to bring about a real and honourable end to child detention.
This document is also available in PDF format.
With huge thanks to Martin Rowson for his specially designed cartoon.
* GSL and G4S
GSL was part of Group 4 Falck, the huge Danish security company that merged with Securicor in July 2004 to create Group 4 Securicor, rebranded in 2006 as G4S.
In June 2004, just ahead of the merger, Group 4 Falck sold GSL to its management in a £207 million deal backed by private equity firms. Then, in December 2007, G4S bought it back again (for £355 million).
G4S chief executive Nick Buckles told the Financial Times in December 2007 that GSL had been sold “to ease the progress of the merger as there would otherwise have been competition issues over prisoner transportation.” GSL, he said, would now “slot neatly into the next stage of G4S’s strategy to focus on long-term government contracts.”
** The UK Border Agency and “Keeping children safe”
Thanks to pressure from the first Children’s Commissioner for England and HM Inspectorate of Prisons, among others repeatedly highlighting multiple deficiencies in the Border Agency’s treatment of vulnerable children over years, mandatory training in child safeguarding for all Border Agency staff in contact with children has been required since 2007.
That was enshrined in the statutory guidance to section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, which gave the Border Agency a duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of children.
The equivalent statutory duty on other public bodies to safeguard children was provided by Section 11 of The Children Act 2004 following the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, but the UK Border Agency and its predecessors resisted these duties until they were imposed on them under section 55.
Children subject to immigration control, including those held in immigration detention in the UK, were excluded from the full rights and protections of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child until November 2008 when, under great pressure, the UK withdrew most of its reservations to the Convention.
Unpublished documents in the author’s possession:
Carrie, Anne Marie. Chief executive, Barnardo’s. Letter to Dr Frank Arnold (27 September 2011).
Foley, Gillian. Detention Services. UK Border Agency. Letter to Dr Frank Arnold. (8 November 2011).
GSL, Yarl’s Wood, and Bedford Hospital. MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING FOR CHILDREN NEEDING SERVICES AT BEDFORD HOSPITAL NHS TRUST AND YARL’S WOOD REMOVAL CENTRE JANUARY 2005. Review date: JANUARY 2006. Ray Reveley, Centre Manager, Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre; Andrew Reed, Chief Executive, Bedford Hospital NHS Trust
Home Office Border & Immigration Agency. INVITEES: MEETING TO DISCUSS THE HEALTH IMPACTS OF DETENTION ON CHILDREN WILL BE HELD AT YARLSWOOD DETENTION CENTRE ON THURSDAY 27 SEPTEMBER 2007 AT 10.00AM
Home Office Border & Immigration Agency. Letter from Joe Heatley, Professional Adviser to Border & Immigration Agency, Children’s Champion, Social Policy Directorate, 17 August 2007 RE: HEALTH IMPACTS ON CHILDREN OF FAMILY DETENTION IN YARL’S WOOD IMMIGRATION REMOVAL CENTRE
Home Office Border & Immigration Agency. AGENDA HEALTH IMPACTS OF DETENTION ON CHILDREN. THURSDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2007
Home Office. Press Office. Response to criticism – these are not to be attributed as direct statements. Nick Logan. (February 2010)
Public domain documents:
Aynsley-Green, Al. An announced visit to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre 31st October 2005. London: The Office of Children’s Commissioner. (December 2005)
Aynsley-Green, Al. The Arrest And Detention of Children Subject to Immigration Control: A report following the Children’s Commissioner for England’s visit to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre 16 May 2008 (April 2009)
Aynsley-Green, Al. The Children’s Commissioner for England’s follow up report to: The Arrest And Detention of Children Subject to Immigration Control. Visit to Yarl’s Wood October 2009 (February 2010)
Aynsley-Green, Al. Speedy end to child detention is needed. The promised review must not be an excuse for civil service prevarication – the welfare of children has to come first. guardian.co.uk (23 May 2010)
Bedford Borough Council: Minutes for Children’s Services Policy Review and Development Committee meeting, Feb 23 2010, 6.30PM. (23 February 2010)
Bedfordshire Local Safeguarding Children Board. Independent Review.Executive Summary. Child A and Child B Placed with Family at Immigration Removal Centre (June 2010)http://www.bedfordshirelscb.org.uk/pro_files/executivesummaryforchildaandchildbindependentreviewfinalversion090610unprotected(2).pdf
Bercow et al. Alternatives to immigration detention of families and children. A discussion paper by John Bercow MP, Lord Dubs and Evan Harris MP for the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Children and Refugees (July 2006)
Bolton, Syd. Co-director of the Refugee Children’s Rights Project, Children’s Legal Centre. Launch of End Child Detention Now’s “Keep Your Promise” campaign. Oxford House, Bethnal Green, London, (26 March 2011)
Green, Damian. Immigration minister. Letter to Keith Vaz, MP, chairman, Home Affairs Select Committee, on UK Border Agency and Border Force governance and the appointment of investment banker Philip Augar as chairman of the UKBA board. (6 June 2012)
Burstow, Paul. Written Answer to Question from Simon Kirby MP on transfer of detention estate healthcare to the NHS. (31 January 2012)
Carmichael, Alistair. Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael. “The report published last week by the coalition of the royal medical colleges made it clear that children who are detained in immigration removal centres suffer from mental health problems and consider self-harm and occasionally even suicide.” House of Commons. Oral Answers to Questions. Home Department. (14 December 2009)
Clegg, Nick. Speech. Nick Clegg confirms end to child detention (16 Dec 2010) Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg this morning announced that child detention for immigration purposes is to end.http://www.libdems.org.uk/speeches_detail.aspx?title=Nick_Clegg_confirms_end_to_child_detention_%28full_speech%29&pPK=d73b587e-f837-4b16-b7d5-a14b1bfa8a9b
Coalition Agreement reached by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (12 May 2010)
Crawley, Heaven. Ending the Detention of Children: Developing an Alternative Approach to Family Returns. Centre for Migration Policy Research (CMPR), Swansea University. (June 2010)
Green, Damian. Immigration minister. Interview. BBC Radio Scotland. 14 June 2012.
Green, Damian. Immigration minister. “We are carrying out the review as fast as humanly possible, so that the detention of children for immigration purposes can end and a practical alternative be put in its place.” Westminster Hall. Alternatives to Child Detention (17 June 2010)
Gil-Robles, E. Report by Elvaro Gil-Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights on his visit to the United Kingdom 4th–12th November 2004, CommDH (2005). Strasbourg: Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights.
Griggs, Tom. G4S recaptures prison operator in £355m deal. Financial Times (19 December 2007)
Hammarberg, Thomas (2008). Memorandum by Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Following his visits to the United Kingdom on 5-8 February and 31 March-2 April 2008, CommDH. Strasbourg: Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. (18 September 2008)
HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). Report on an announced inspection of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre 28 February – 4 March 2005 by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). Inquiry into the quality of healthcare at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (20-24 February 2006) by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.
HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). Report on an announced inspection of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (4-8 February 2008) by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
More HMIP reports on Yarl’s Wood here.
Hillier, Meg. Labour Home Office minister. The Lorek report “did not take into account the views of the clinicians who worked with those children and who know them.” House of Commons. Oral Answers to Questions. Home Department. (14 December 2009)
Home Office UK Border Agency. Review into the Ending of the Detention of Children for Immigration Purposes. Terms of Reference. (1 June 2010)
Homer Lin, UKBA chief executive. Response to Medical Justice. “State Sponsored Cruelty”. Children in immigration detention. September 2010, said UKBA took the needs of “vulnerable individuals seeking asylum in the UK, and in particular the need to safeguard and protect the wellbeing of children”, very seriously.
Homer Lin, UKBA chief executive. “seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors”. Foreword to O’Loan (March 2010) p1.
House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. The Detention of Children in the Immigration System. First Report of Session 2009–10 House of Commons (24 November 2009)
Independent Police Complaints Commission. Independent investigation into complaints following “The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence” BBC Panorama 26 July 2006. (2006)
Lorek et al. The mental and physical health difficulties of children held within a British immigration detention centre: A pilot study. Child Abuse and Neglect: 33: 573-585. (2009)
Medical Justice. Outsourcing abuse. The use and misuse of state-sanctioned force during the detention and removal of asylum seekers. A report by Birnberg Peirce & Partners, Medical Justice and the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (July 2008)
Medical Justice. “State Sponsored Cruelty”. Children in immigration detention. Jon Burnett, Judith Carter, Jon Evershed, Maya Bell Kohli, Claire Powell, and Gervase de Wilde. 141 cases are featured in this report involving children detained between 2004 and April 2010. These children spent a mean average of 26 days each in immigration detention. One child had spent 166 days in detention, over numerous separate periods, before her third birthday. 48% of the children in this report were born in the UK. 74 children were psychologically harmed. Symptoms included bed-wetting and loss of bowel control, heightened anxiety, and food refusal. 34 children exhibited signs of developmental regression. Six children expressed suicidal ideation either whilst in detention or after release. Three girls attempted to end their own lives. (September 2010)
O’Loan, Nuala. REPORT TO THE UNITED KINGDOM BORDER AGENCY ON “OUTSOURCING ABUSE” by BARONESS NUALA O’LOAN DBE (March 2010)
Plimmer, Gill. Outsourcing set to boom as contracts surge, Financial Times. (17 June 2012)
The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics and Child Health, General Practitioners and Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health. Intercollegiate Briefing Paper: Significant Harm – the effects of immigration detention on the health of children and families in the UK. (10 December 2009)
Sambrook, Clare. How Official Lying Threatens Our Democracy and What Should Be Done About It, Submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications The Future of Investigative Journalism, 21 November 2011.
Committee’s report: The future of investigative journalism (16 February 2012)
Sambrook’s report also published on
OurKingdom@openDemocracy (21 November 2011)
Sambrook, Clare. Controversial doctor and Barnardo’s serve UK’s flawed child detention policy. OurKingdom@openDemocracy (15 June, 2012)
Sambrook, Clare. G4S teaches UK Border Agency how to care for children. OurKingdom@openDemocracy (10 July, 2012)
Serco. Contract News Update. Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre contract extension (11 May 2010)
Stevens, Malcolm. Former lead Children’s Services Inspector with the Government’s Social Services Inspectorate. “a shameful account of institutional incompetence”. Yarl’s Wood immigration centre treated children in a shameful way. It’s clearer than ever that this centre must be closed, says Malcolm Stevens. The Daily Telegraph. (18 June 2010)
Vaz, Keith, “Our visit was somewhat marred by the Home Office officials’ terrible anxiety about the Select Committee visit.” Westminster Hall (17 June 2010)
Wood, Dave, Director of Criminality and Detention. UKBA. “Treating children with care and compassion is a priority. Families at Yarl’s Wood should get the same level of care available on the NHS, and they do.” Move children out of migrant centres say medical experts. Owen Boycott. The Guardian. (10 December 2009)
Wood, Dave, Director of Criminality and Detention. UKBA. “it’s not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond”. Examination of witnesses. Home Affairs Committee, 16 September 2009.
Wood, Dave, Director of Criminality and Detention. UKBA. “the study was undertaken without any reference to the UK Border Agency or its clinicians”. Supplementary memorandum submitted by UK Border Agency. Home Affairs Committee, November 2009.
See also OurKingdom’s collections:
The scandal of child detention in the UK
G4S: securing whose world?
For almost two years OurKingdom has been exposing the gap between official rhetoric and practice in the UK government’s appalling treatment of the vulnerable children of asylum seekers.
Today we present a disturbing new dossier by OurKingdom Co-Editor, the award-winning author Clare Sambrook — Official lying and how it harms our democracy (which can be opened as a PDF).
The dossier arose in response to an invitation from the House of Lords Communications Committee. The peers invited Clare to give live evidence on 11th October for their current inquiry into the future of investigative journalism. This dossier is being submitted to the committee today as an additional briefing paper.
The peers asked: what are the threats to journalism? Sambrook answers: the biggest threat to journalism and our democracy is official lying, and here is a narrow but deep sample of the way that officials communicate. “If the systematic mendacity recorded here is representative of the way government functions,” says Sambrook, “then our democracy is in serious trouble.”
Also giving evidence the same day was Ian Hislop. He helped the peers understand some basic distinctions, for example that hacking is not investigative journalism. He also made a striking point, for me at least, when asked to define investigative journalism. In part, he answered, it is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops. It is not just that Private Eye runs a story, its influence comes from repeating it over and over again.
There is an important lesson here. What matters is not revealing something that is wrong. The ice soon closes over. What matters – and what of course costs time and money – is continuous, informed, accurate repetition so that exposé of the wrongdoing will not go away. Hackgate can be seen as a classic vindication of this analysis. It did not just explode with the Milly Dowler revelation. Had the Guardian, or any other paper, run that story out of the blue, there would have been shock but no other consequences, certainly not the closure of the News of the World and the Levenson Inquiry. Without Nick Davies’s (who gave evidence alongside Sambrook) utterly dedicated (for years ignored) persistence and the Guardian’s commitment to him, there would have been no explosion.
This led me to reflect on the impact of Clare Sambrook’s coverage of child detention. It was backed by a campaign: just over two years ago Clare and five friends working unpaid and unfunded launched End Child Detention Now. OurKingdom was able to open its doors and let the campaign publish repeatedly and at will. We didn’t say, “Oh, we have already ‘covered’ that”. And boy did Clare and her ECDN colleagues invest their time. In the process OurKingdom learnt how to combine ‘investigative comment’ with openness. I had not fully understood the importance of repetition as part of effective exposure.
Just how much work this means you can see for yourself, in the brief sample of Sambrook articles listed below. (The entire ECDN press campaign published so far is here). Now Sambrook’s dossier on official mendacity takes the argument a step further. For in the intense, relentless process of exposing the scandal of child detention another perhaps even greater scandal emerges. The British state and its civil service, which presents itself as an honest public service, is suborned. There is a clear pattern of persistent official lying used in defence of the punitive practice of arresting and detaining asylum-seeking families.
It is very important to understand that we are not talking about politicians being ‘economical with the truth’, or being misleading or downright lying — which everyone expects. It is not a matter of broken promises made on the stump to win votes. Clare Sambrook exposes repeated and systematic cover-up by officials, by civil servants employed by the taxpayer, of reputable medical evidence that children were being harmed. In the dossier she highlights attempts by officials to mislead ministers about the significance of safeguarding failures in a case of alleged child sex abuse at Yarl’s Wood, the UK Border Agency’s notorious Bedfordshire detention centre.
Urging a restoration of respect for information, Sambrook writes: “The role of government and local government press officers should be to serve the public with truth, not to serve ministers by spinning to the public.” To achieve this she suggests that “every press release and public statement issued by officials should be signed off by an official who takes responsibility for the accuracy of the information. It should be forbidden for civil servants to mislead Parliament or its committees, just as ministers are forbidden from so doing.”
The issue could hardly be more important if there is to be any trust in government.
At one point in the Committee hearings, committee chairman Lord Inglewood asked Ian Hislop and Alan Rusbridger: “Do you think there is masses of scandals out there that just never get revealed at all?” Hislop replied: “There is plenty that nobody knows anything about. Every time something turns up, I do not know about you, I say, ‘Good grief, I didn’t know that’.” I felt everyone in the room was reflecting on their secrets, little and perhaps not so little, for who knows? Baroness Fookes chipped in: “Like the perfect murder, we do not know about it.”
Indeed. But how much more perfect is it for everyone to know that the truth is being murdered while neither preventing nor reporting it.
A look back through the OurKingdom archive of Sambrook’s journalism that is grounded in her work with the pro bono citizens’ campaign End Child Detention Now:
January, 2010: In Roll calls, body searches and sex games, what Parliament isn’t being told about children’s lives inside a UK detention centre, Sambrook exposed official efforts to undermine medical evidence that children being locked up for administrative convenience were suffering lasting psychological harm.
March 2010: She exposed the practice of classifying vulnerable unaccompanied children as adults (thus denying them the care and protection that is due to minors) in Take one traumatised child, classify as ‘adult’, arrest, lock up, and bundle onto plane, bound for danger.
April 2010: In Surveillance + detention = £Billions: How Labour’s friends are ‘securing your world’, Sambrook examined the commercial outsourcing companies running the “detention estate”.
While in opposition, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had called Labour’s policy of arresting and detaining asylum seeking families “state sponsored cruelty”, and his party made ending child detention a manifesto promise. The coalition agreement included the unqualified assertion: “We will end child detention”. But instead of ending detention, the Coalition government ordered a “review of the alternatives” which excluded the very obvious alternative of not detaining children. To run this review it appointed, not a person of proven independence, but the UK Border Agency’s own Dave Wood, director of criminality and detention, and a staunch defender of the detention policy who had gone so far as to undermine peer reviewed medical evidence of harm to children in a misleading memo to Parliament.
15 December 2010: The Review of alternatives was to climax in a pre-Christmas Mission Accomplished-style speech from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. On the eve of Clegg’s announcement, Sambrook’s dossier Five years of denial: the UK government’s reckless pursuit of a punitive asylum policy — never mind the evidence of harm was published — and distributed to reporters — explicitly to encourage scepticism ahead of the fanfare.
The next day Nick Clegg duly proclaimed: “We are setting out, for the first time, how we are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes . . . That practice, the practice we inherited, ends here.”
But it didn’t.
As on 31 December 2010: Sambrook and End Child Detention Now demonstrated in Mind the Gap! Coalition claims and realities for child detention in the UK.
February 2011: Among the Coalition’s claims made soon after its formation and frequently repeated was that no child would be detained at Christmas 2010. And no child was, claimed the UK Border Agency as late as 10 January 2011. That wasn’t true either. A Freedom of Information request revealed that the Border Agency had indeed locked up an 11 year old girl in a detention centre on Christmas Day. “This story betrays UK Border Agency incompetence and contempt for democratic process, proving yet again that it is not fit to be entrusted with children’s care,” wrote Sambrook in these pages.
In July 2011, more than a year after the government promised to end child detention, we published Sambrook’s Frisk the 5-year-old: the UK Government’s new compassionate approach to child detention, revealing how a 5 year old, wrongly listed as a “visitor” to a UKBA detention facility at a Heathrow Airport detention facility and thus not recorded as a detainee, was subjected to a “rub down search” by a custody officer saying, “You’re a big boy now, so I have to search you.”
The government’s newest detention facility, “Cedars” in Pease Pottage, near Gatwick, freshly rebranded as “family friendly pre-departure accommodation” opened this past September. According to the Home Office this marked completion of “The final stage in the government’s pledge to end the detention of children for immigration purposes”.
Last week, on 15 November, in the House of Commons Nick Clegg faced this question from Labour MP Lisa Nandy:
“Last year, the Deputy Prime Minister, speaking in a professional capacity, set out how he would end child detention by May. It is now November. Does he still believe this practice is immoral and does he still plan to keep his promise? If so, will he tell the House when?”
Mr Clegg replied, “Compared with the previous Government’s record of thousands of young people being detained—yes, immorally—behind bars when they were entirely innocent, the new arrangements are a complete, humane, liberal revolution, of which I am very proud indeed.”
The work goes on.
The New Statesman reports on a BBC investigation that government pilots involving 113 families in London and the North-West had given families with children just two weeks to voluntarily leave the country. Two families who refused to comply were taken into detention and deported shortly after and two families accepted voluntary re-settlement packages. Significantly only 3 of the 113 families involved in the pilot ceased contact with the authorities or disappeared – emphasising the extremely low probability of such families absconding.
As Samira Shackle writes, the real problem is that as a consequence of cuts to legal aid and the closure of specialist providers of legal support to refugees and asylum seekers, ‘the vast majority of people seeking asylum are not given anything resembling a fair hearing’. That appears to be of no concern to the Home Office as it prepares new tough compliance controls involving separately detaining one or other parent in order to force the family onto a flight, electronic tagging, and ‘non-detained’ accommodation new Heathrow Airport from which one assumes it will be difficult to escape.
What the BBC report fails to point out, however, is that following the coalition government’s announcement that ‘the moral outrage’ of child detention was to end, 37 children have been held in immigration detention between 1st June and 4th October according to the UKBA’s own figures.
It would appear that only the Deputy Prime Minister finds the continued incarceration of children by his Home Office colleagues disturbing. With the talk of ‘ending child detention’ shifting to Damian Green’s increasing reference to ‘minimizing detention’ – a practice the Home Secretary staunchly defended in the High Court only a week ago – it is not surprising to hear Dame Pauline Neville-Jones say that ‘I trust that we will not be in a situation in which children are detained for any length of period at all; but certainly if they were, education would be a very important factor’. In other words, we may well need to keep open Yarl’s Wood.
So much for the Deputy Prime Minister’s promise to end child detention for good. The UKBA are trying to soften up the Clegg/Huhn wing of the government for a predictable ‘there is no alternative to detention’ conclusion to yet another flawed pilot. This ill-thought out scheme has everything to do with ramping up the removal figures and nothing to do with allowing parents and children a fair hearing from a genuinely impartial justice system. It is good to hear the Children’s Society voicing its opposition to this despicable attack on vulnerable children and their families. We now need to see all the charities and NGOs who were persuaded to join the government’s flawed and cynical review to follow suit and publicly distance themselves from its punitive and dangerous consequences.
The Today report can be heard on BBC iplayer [about 50 minutes in].
This has been a momentous week for the end child detention campaign with the No10 petition recording its 2,000th name – one for every child arrested and locked up by the UK Borders Agency just because they or their parents have dared to claim asylum and refused to be returned to countries the Home Office declares to be “safe” such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Zimbabwe and the Congo.