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Child detention: the powers that the Home Office won't let go

Written by Steve Symonds, Amnesty UK's Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director

The power to detain is a long-standing Home Office obsession. For several years, the number of people detained has increased even as the proportion of those people removed from the country on their release has consistently declined. Last year, most people leaving detention returned to communities in the UK.

Until recently, campaigners have been encouraged by progress on reducing the use of detention.

Firstly, by the wide-ranging inquiry of a cross-party parliamentary group which found the use of detention excessive – both in the number of people detained, and the length of their detention.

Secondly, by former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw’s report which was commissioned by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. The report made clear the use of detention needed to be reduced.

Alarming recent developments

On the last day of business before Parliament’s summer break, the new Minister for Immigration, Robert Goodwill MP, quietly slipped out a statement about the continued detention of children.

Last week, statistics on pregnant women in detention strongly suggest the Home Office has not been following its own policy. The previous week, it was revealed a detained man with a heart condition had died after more than a week in hospital during nearly all of which time he’d been held on a chain and in handcuffs.

The statement on detaining children provides a good point of focus for understanding the degree of challenge still facing those campaigning about immigration detention in the UK.

Ending child detention...or not

The original commitment to end child detention was made in the agreement for coalition government after the May 2010 election. It was published in commendably clear terms:

“We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.”

The coalition government achieved real progress in significantly reducing the number of children detained and the length of time they were held in detention.

In the last full year of the last Labour government, more than 1,100 children were detained. Between 2011 and 2015, around 150 to 250 children have been detained each year.

This reduction has benefited many, but it is very far from an end to the detention of children. For a long time, the Home Office refused to acknowledge the failure or refusal to meet their commitment. Instead, they hid this behind a misleading play on words. The controversial facility set up in late 2010 as the key means to end child detention was named Cedars pre-departure accommodation.

But families with children were detained there. With the Immigration Act 2014, the government effectively conceded this. Section 6 of that Act formally brought Cedars within the governing standards and oversight of immigration detention.

And lest we forget, children have continued to be detained in other detention centres. Indeed, more children have been detained elsewhere – including Tinsley House immigration removal centre than have been detained in Cedars.

Rewriting the rules

So is the Minister’s statement that Cedars is to be replaced really such a big deal? It sure is. And a big reason why is writ large in one of the key sentences in the statement:

“The Government met their commitment to end the routine detention of children by...”

Did you miss it? Take another look:

“The Government met their commitment to end the ROUTINE detention of children by...”

As if by magic, the original commitment has been changed from ending detention of children to ending their routine detention.

That in itself is a major setback for those who have campaigned for years to end a practice that can cause significant physical and psychological harm lasting long after the child’s detention ends.

But the change effected by introducing the word ‘routine’ threatens to do even more harm to both children and adults at risk of immigration detention.

The dangerous charade of ending ‘routine’ detention

In fairness to Mr Goodwill, this change of language has not been introduced on his watch. Over a year ago, then Home Office Minister Lord Bates answered a question in the House of Lords beginning with the statement:

“We ended the routine detention of families with children in 2010...”

More recently, the same language was used by the government in responding to Stephen Shaw’s recommendation that the detention of pregnant women should be ended. In April, Theresa May told Parliament:

“The Government plan to end the routine detention of pregnant women.”

It is long-settled policy that detention should be an option of last resort, only to be used when removing someone from the UK (or efficiently considering whether they should be removed) cannot be achieved without detaining them.

True, the excessive use of detention clearly indicates this policy is not respected in practice. But if the Home Office are permitted to get away with the suggestion detention ever was permitted to be and was routine, it will be even less likely that use of powers to detain are significantly reduced.


Because if Ministers, parliamentarians and members of the public are hoodwinked into accepting routine detention is the starting point for reform, the Home Office will be able to get away with barely changing a thing.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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