Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, has published a report criticising the continued detention of children at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.
The report was based on an announced inspection from 13-16 February 2006 designed to ascertain whether recommendations made following the full inspection in the previous year had been adhered to. Yet despite identifying areas of improvement, the report remains critical of the detention of children in the centre and labels this issue as the ‘most important concern’ facing Yarl’s Wood.
Continuing to fail children
Following the full inspection of Yarl’s Wood in 2005, Anne Owers emphasised the ‘weaknesses in child protection and child welfare’, which included alarm over the length that some children were remaining in detention. This concern re-surfaces in the 2006 report, which concludes that at the time of inspection ‘children were still being detained for too long’, indicating that Yarl’s Wood had failed to meet one of the main recommendations made by Owers in the previous year, which stated that: ‘The detention of children should be exceptional and for no more than a few days.’ Indeed, the report highlights that ‘High numbers of children were still being detained at the centre’ and details that: ‘between May and October 2005, 897 children had been admitted to Yarl’s Wood. 165 of these children were held for between four and seven days, 120 for between eight and fourteen days, 55 for between 15 and 21 days, 24 for between 29 and 56 days, and three for over 57 days.’ At the time of the unannounced inspection, one child had remained in detention for 112 days. The report concludes that ‘the detention of [these] children could not be considered an exceptional measure, used for only a few days’.
In addition, the report indicates that there is still ‘no evidence to suggest that the child’s welfare was taken into consideration when making decisions about initial and continued detention’. Worryingly, ‘no initial needs assessment was undertaken following the arrival of the child’. Whilst the report identifies the establishment of a social worker post as a positive measure, it indicates that this role is ‘unclear’ and that there is no system currently in place to ensure that any points raised by the social worker would inform detention decisions. The report reveals that following the unannounced inspection, the holder of this post subsequently resigned.
The inspectors carried out a series of interviews with a selection of the detained children. Recurrent themes raised by the children included the manner in which they were ‘snatched’ and taken to the centre, illnesses that they had suffered whilst at the centre and their feelings regarding education and schooling. One ten-year-old child spoke of how he had been ‘scared because police broke my door down’ and ‘upset [because] I felt like I was in jail’. Another thirteen-year-old explained the reasons for his self-imposed alienation by stating ‘That is why I just stay in my room – I keep thinking about the handcuffs.’ The majority of the children interviewed said that the staff at Yarl’s Wood were ‘nice’ or ‘friendly’, compared to the immigration officers, who were described as ‘rude’ and intimidating.
Yet despite this positive feedback regarding the staff, many of the children stated that Yarl’s Wood was like a ‘prison’ and that they were being treated like criminals. Some children revealed to the interviewers that they were frightened of ‘being killed’, whilst for other, younger children, the whole environment of Yarl’s Wood presented a threat. One child expressed his fear of ‘the big and noisy shoes worn by the officers’. Unsurprisingly, given these responses, only four of the thirteen children interviewed said that they felt ‘happy’.
The report is particularly critical of the fact that Yarl’s Wood has failed to operate within the agreed structure for making a child protection referral. Despite a procedural system being agreed with Bedfordshire Social Services following the 2005 report, Yarl’s Wood was operating using its own ‘Cause for Concern’ regulations at the time of the unannounced inspection. The 2006 report labels the ‘Cause for Concern’ procedure as ‘fundamentally flawed and dangerous’ and states that the operational instruction regarding ‘Safeguarding Children’ should be ‘urgently amended’.
The inappropriateness of the removal centre as an educational institution for children is highlighted in the report, which states that ‘education provision for children remained deficient’. The education provided for children at Yarl’s Wood seems to be regarded by parents as an optional activity and the report recommends that the ‘centre should adopt a more positive approach and ethos in promoting the educational opportunities on offer, and in emphasising the responsibilities of parents to ensure that their children attend classes’.
In addition, the report reveals that at the time of inspection not all teaching staff held appropriate qualifications, there was a lack of planned individual opportunities in English classes and there remained no link with the children’s previous schools, making it impossible to gather information on their educational experience and background. The range and quality of teaching resources available was again cited as a source of concern in the report and short units of accreditation, recommended by Owers as a means of offering children some form of qualification, had not been introduced.
Home Office Minister Liam Byrne welcomed Ms Owers’ report and pointed out areas of improvement referred to in the report, including the employment of a registered sick children’s nurse (RSCN) by Veritas, a private company which provides health care, and the improvement in the quality of teaching accommodation for the children’s upper age group. With reference to the children in detention, he stated: ‘I would like to emphasise that the government remains firmly committed to ensuring their protection, which means that detention is used only where necessary, is kept to a minimum period and is subject to frequent and rigorous review.’ In answer to calls for a ‘complete overhaul of children in detention’, Mr Byrne commented: ‘I take very seriously the recommendations in the report and an action plan responding in detail to them is currently being drawn up.’
Download the Inspectorate Report from the Home Office website (pdf file, 1.1Mb, May 2006).