Deputy Prime Minister's speech on child detention

A speech by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on ending the detention of children for immigration purposes, delivered on 16 December 2010.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Nick Clegg

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Today the Coalition Government is making an important announcement.

We are setting out, for the first time, how we are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes in the UK.

How we are ending the shameful practice that last year alone saw over 1000 children - 1000 innocent children - imprisoned.

7000 children during the last five years of the Labour Government.

Children literally taken from their homes, without warning, and placed behind bars.

Locked up, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, in one case for 190 days; something no innocent child should ever have to endure.

That practice, the practice we inherited, ends here.

It’s something my party, the Liberal Democrats, fought long and hard for, as did many of the people in this room.

But wherever you stand on the political spectrum, whatever your views on immigration, this is surely a change we can all support.   

Not least at this time of year, Christmas: a time for family, for goodwill, and, especially, for children.

Our reforms will deliver an approach to families that is compassionate and humane, while still maintaining the integrity of our immigration system.

Because, unlike the last Labour Government, our starting point is this: there is no greater test of civilised society than how it treats its young children.

So I can announce today that the family unit of Yarls Wood will be closed to families with children with immediate effect.

And I can confirm that, on the same basis, the detention of children for immigration purposes will also end at Tinsley House, no later than 11 May; exactly one year to the day from the signing of the Coalition Agreement.

By March a totally new process for families in the immigration system will be underway.

One that is built around giving them much greater confidence in the system, as well as the support they need to take more control, more decisions, for themselves; through, for example, early access to legal advice, and dedicated, specialist caseworkers.

And, where applications are unsuccessful, through new family conferences: opportunities for families to talk through all of their options with staff from the UK Border Agency, their legal adviser and a friend or supporter from their community.   

Families who leave voluntarily will be able to do so with ease and dignity, and with help to resettle - in terms of housing, education, business opportunities - so they can build a future for themselves in their home country.

On top of this new approach, I can also announce that, when a family’s application is rejected but they don’t want to leave, we are also overhauling the system.

UKBA will still need to make arrangements for their departure, as it does now.

But, unlike now, where a family can be locked up from the moment their application is refused, all families will be given the time and space to make further appeals, to get their personal affairs in order, and to say their farewells.

These parents and their children will not be treated like criminals; they will have every opportunity to leave under their own steam.

If, and only if, a family absolutely refuses to leave - and we expect the number to be low - their case will be referred to a wholly new, independent, Family Returns Panel.

Independently chaired, including experts in family welfare and health issues, and able to draw on the in-depth knowledge of local agencies involved in each case.

Not run by me; or the Home Secretary; or UKBA; but by people who understand the needs of families, and whose job it is to protect the welfare of the children involved.  

The panel will have direct responsibility for recommending the best course of action to get the family to return home.

As an absolutely last resort, involving what we predict will be a tiny number of cases, they could be moved to new, family-friendly accommodation, immediately prior to leaving the country.

But make no mistake: this a world away from the old immigration detention centres. These units won’t be prisons. They’re not big institutions. They’ll be small and personal, for a few families, used only in extreme situations. And we are actively looking bringing in the third sector to help run them.

They’ll be somewhere the family can stay together. Somewhere they will have everything they need. Somewhere their privacy will be respected. 

And, crucially, somewhere the family, and especially the children, will have the opportunity to come and go where that is appropriate.

As we move to the new system I also want to give an assurance regarding any families caught up in the transition: we are putting the new arrangements in place as quickly as we can.

And the new spirit is already governing the way the authorities operate.

On that, I hope the fact there will be no children in detention this Christmas speaks for itself.

So today’s announcement marks a big culture shift within our immigration system.

One that puts our values - the protection of children - above paranoia over our borders.

One that prioritises doing the right thing over looking and sounding tough.

Reforms that will give the UK one of the most child-friendly immigration systems in the developed world.

Before I hand over to our other speakers I would like to say a huge thank you to the people in this room, whose hard work and dedication has made this possible.

Specifically, can I thank the Diana Princess Memorial Fund - who did so much to get UKBA and its partners talking.

The Children’s Commissioner - for continuing to champion the voice of children.

Damian Green - for his leadership within the Home Office, and for refusing to listen to the people who said it couldn’t be done.

Sarah Teather - who has been relentless in her defence of children at every step of this process.

Martin Narey - who I’m delighted can be with us today, and who has done a tremendous amount for so many children during his time at Barnardos.

And, of course, Citizens UK. Before Pastor Wayne Brown and Lorin Sulaiman come up here, let me say that we are deeply indebted to them and their colleagues.

Citizens have been enormously successful in raising awareness around this campaign, and hugely brave for addressing the more difficult, more controversial, challenges in this area.

The recommendations you produced have been a great help to Government, so thank you very, very much.

Published 16 December 2010