Barnardo’s reflection on its first two years at Cedars ‘pre-departure accommodation’ raises once again the problem of NGOs working to a state agenda.
When, in the wake of the coalition’s ‘abolition’ of child detention in 2010, Barnardo’s announced its participation in the Home Office’s new ‘family-friendly pre-departure accommodation’ to be managed by G4S, it ignited a furious debate in the voluntary sector about the ethics of such contracts, the extent to which organisations’ independence, values and raison d’être were compromised by involvement in the mechanisms of control. Since the contract was signed, campaigners angry at what they see as collusion with the re-labelled, prettified detention of children have picketed Barnardo’s charity shops, leafletting staff and customers, occupied its Barkingside headquarters and disrupted a charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
The charity responded that it was merely doing what it did best: providing welfare and social work services to support some of the most vulnerable children in the UK. CEDARS, the name of the centre, is an acronym for Compassion, Empathy, Dignity, Approachability, Respect and Support, which is supposed to represent the attitude to the families staying there. (It is not called a detention centre, despite its obvious security features.) In case G4S did not live up to the acronym, Barnardo’s set out seven ‘red lines’, pledging to speak out if a family stayed more than once, or for over a week (the absolute maximum permitted period of detention, requiring ministerial authorisation for any period above three days), and to withdraw from the contract if this happened more than twice; to speak out if the level of force used in moving people to and from the centre was ‘disproportionate’ or if it had serious concerns over staff behaviour, and to withdraw from the contract if these issues once raised were not adequately addressed.
Reading its report, Cedars: two years on reopens all these questions, and induces a tumult of reactions. It is only fair to acknowledge (and the report cites testimony from HM Inspector of Prisons and others) that Barnardo’s presence appears to have lessened the immediate violence of detention and removal and reduced the levels of stress and distress for many of the children and parents held at Cedars. We also learn that it is supporting some G4S staff to undertake a diploma in child care. The removal of a young teenage girl and her mother was stopped when Barnardo’s staff shared concerns about a risk of trafficking or exploitation. This is the only instance in the report of Barnardo’s intervening to stop a removal; generally, their task is to make families feel better about being removed, through kindness, talking, games, perhaps contacting family members in the home country or ensuring some post-return financial support. The report proudly recounts the story of a family highly distressed at the prospect of removal when they arrived, transformed by Barnardo’s care and expertise into one dressed in their best and looking forward to seeing extended family again and going to the beach on return – they even sent a thank-you email.
Criticisms and recommendations
The report is not wholly complacent about the centre. It describes four areas where ‘improvements can be made’. Arrest and escort arrangements, where continued routine use of too many uniformed officials descending on families in their homes and bundling them into vans, exacerbates distress, and Barnardo’s recommends that escorts (currently from Tascor) in ‘appropriate’ numbers, wearing uniform and protective equipment such as handcuffs only when this is really necessary, should use unmarked transport to remove families, who should be given time to dress and collect belongings, and unexplained and unnecessary delays should be avoided. Properly recruited specialist escorts, trained in safeguarding, should be used to work with children and families. It is concerned too about inconsistency in the use of force: when it should be used, to what extent, and how to avoid it. It has intervened with the Home Office on three occasions on the disproportionate use of force, and wants a Home Office policy emphasising techniques to minimise the need for physical intervention. It reports that the Home Office no longer authorises the use of force on pregnant women or children except to prevent harm.
Its strongest criticism is of splitting families for the purposes of immigration enforcement, which it says should never be done: the only justification for splitting families is protection and welfare concerns. It also expresses concern about failed returns followed by re-arrest.
So why does the report leave a queasy feeling? The sleight of hand (I won’t call it dishonesty) of omitting children held elsewhere from the statistics on children’s detention doesn’t help: we read that over a total of 1,100 children were detained in 2009, before the coalition pledge to end children’s detention and the setting up of Cedars, and that only 120 children were held in Cedars in its first year and 90 in its second. No reference to the children held at Tinsley House, or in airport holding centres, which pushed the numbers up – or to the scores of children held as adults, in adult detention centres.
The self-congratulatory tone doesn’t help either. Passages describing Barnardo’s input in choosing paint colours, furnishings and discreet ‘dynamic security’ before the centre opened in August 2011, disguising security arches with murals to ensure child-friendliness induce fury: it’s a detention centre, you can’t disguise it! you want to shout. Even the criticisms of the Home Office and of escorts are muted and conciliatory. Negative incidents tend to be skated over: there are no details of the widely publicised incident of the dangerous use of force on a pregnant woman, described in the HMI report, no description of the other incidents on which Barnardo’s claims to have intervened with the Home Office, and no reference to any attempted suicides at the centre, although at least one has been reported elsewhere. No reference, either, to the fact that, as HMI reported, over half of all arrests were ‘dawn raids’. The language employed gives no sense of the extreme distress of children caught up in these raids, viscerally reported by Sir Al Aynsley-Green when he was Children’s Commissioner, and unchanged since. The report has a sense of unreality about it: guards and escorts don’t use force on children (so when a child fearfully clings to his bed-frame, they wait indefinitely? coax him with sweets? go away?) With some minor, easily remediable exceptions, the report’s tone suggests, everything at Cedars is hunky-dory.
Fading red lines
Yet even on the face of this report, it would appear that Cedars and escort staff have strayed over Barnardo’s red lines – in the repeated (though not systematic) use of disproportionate force; in the ‘repeat detention’ of families referred to obliquely towards the end of the report. But there is no mention of withdrawal from the contract, which the famous ‘red lines’ require (with hindsight one sees how carefully they were drafted, giving the organisation plenty of ‘wriggle room’). The failure to spell out with sufficient clarity the serious incidents of misconduct and the repeat detentions which might have justified withdrawal, and the bland, reassuring language of the report gives the contrary impression: it is onwards and upwards for Barnardo’s, with its ‘responsibility to improve both the Family Returns Process and the wider asylum and immigration system’.
And how could it be otherwise? Having taken the contract in the first place, and having seen the difference skilled and caring staff make to the process of detention and removal, it is practically impossible for Barnardo’s now to pull out. The organisation would see it as a betrayal of those children.
Herein lies the nub of the problem. Barnardo’s presence does make removal a less painful process for some children and families – but that makes it wholly complicit in the process. If Barnardo’s was serious about its mission to improve the wider asylum and immigration system within which it operates, it would be up in arms about the legal aid cuts which have led to the decimation of good independent legal advice and assistance for those seeking to stay. It would be no less angry about the abolition by the Home Office of its promising attempt to reform asylum decision-making, the ‘Solihull Pilot’ or ‘Early Legal Advice Project’, which was hailed for cutting costs, reducing appeals and providing more credible and sustainable decisions through a collaborative process between the asylum seeker, the lawyers and Home Office caseworkers. These two developments since Barnardo’s entered its contract mean that the families in its care now face removal after a significantly worse, less reliable decision-making process than before, with much-reduced access to decent legal help. The organisation has, in the past, lobbied government to ensure that the rights of unaccompanied children are respected in the asylum process – yet in this review of its involvement in the removals process, there is nothing which indicates its understanding of the impact these changes have had, and will have. Nothing, either, about the likely impact of the removal of most appeals under the Immigration Act which received royal assent on 14 May – although the Act’s statutory grounding of the Family Removals Process Act is (rightly) welcomed for the additional safeguards it confers.
So it is almost a case of the three wise monkeys. Barnardo’s selective vision means that neither in the laws which strip families of access to meaningful legal remedies, nor in the processes whereby children and families are removed, does it see or hear evil. It does not (and cannot) generally challenge or second-guess the basis on which removal has been ordained (with the one exception of the possible trafficking victim). It has without question accepted the Home Office’s categorisation of families as the non-compliers, the refusers, who having been refused leave to stay, refuse to leave, will not accept voluntary removal, will not cooperate with arrangements for their removal – and that is why they are there. It is not Barnardo’s job to question or survey the context within which it works. It cannot but accept the Home Office frame of reference, and its stance is that the children should not suffer for the sins of their parents. But what if the parents’ desperation stems from their being more sinned against than sinning?
While Barnardo’s bona fides in seeking to make the experience of detention and removal as painless as possible for children is beyond question, It is its naïve, unquestioning acceptance of the framework of its care provision, and of all the other players, that angers objectors. In the final analysis, the concern expressed by Al Aynsley-Green when Barnardo’s took the contract – that organisations can’t effectively hold government to account if they work inside the system and take public money – is vindicated by this report. Barnardo’s colludes with, legitimises and provides chintz curtains for a system of institutionalised disbelief, indifference and inhumanity – no matter how kindly it does its job.