HC Deb 12 July 2004 vol 423 cc1113-6
4. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

When he next plans to meet the Children's Commissioner for Scotland to discuss the operation of the Dungavel detention centre. [183087]

12. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on his recent visit to Dungavel detention centre. [183095]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

I visited Dungavel on 2 July and found the conditions and facilities entirely satisfactory. I was impressed, as I know the hon. Gentleman was when he visited the centre in May, by the caring and dedicated staff who work there. The issue of accommodation centres is a reserved matter, but in his usual generous way, my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration has agreed to meet the Children's Commissioner for Scotland, Professor Kathleen Marshall. I am sure that that will be a suitable occasion for her to express her concerns.

Mr. Carmichael

I thank the Home Secretary for that answer. I confirm that during my visit to the Dungavel detention centre recently I was impressed by the standard of the staff and the care that they exhibited. He may be aware that the Children's Commissioner for Scotland recently described the detention of children in Dungavel as "morally upsetting". She is said to be considering taking legal action to end it. Would it not be better if the Home Secretary accepted that holding families with young children in the same institution as adults—some of whom have just been released from lengthy prison sentences and are awaiting deportation—is wrong and ought to be ended sooner rather than later?

Mr. Blunkett

First, I ought to make it clear, so that there is no doubt in anyone's mind, that the individuals described by the hon. Gentleman are separated from the families, as he will have found on his visit in May. Secondly, of course we accept that in an ideal world it would be appropriate not to have children in removal centres. That matter concerns retaining the unity of the family. I am prepared—my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration and I have been discussing this—to consider whether we could use tracking and electronic methodology so that we could take families out of such accommodation centres, and whether we could provide more concentrated facilities for those for whom that would not be suitable, such as people who would abscond and use their children as an excuse for not being available for removal. These are difficult issues, but we have to take public policy into account and deal with the often contradictory pressures that come to bear when we are trying to remove people who, because of the very nature of the challenge facing them, are unlikely to co-operate.

Ann McKechin

I, too, have visited Dungavel recently as a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, and I join my right hon. Friend in commending the staff there on their work and professionalism. To pick up his comments on detention of children, I noticed that, because of the presence of single men and women at the centre, the security regime has to be fairly tight and restrictive. Does he think that there is a convincing argument in favour of detaining families in an entirely separate unit where security arrangements can be much less restrictive, especially given that the risk of families absconding seems to be far less than that of single people doing so?

Mr. Blunkett

One consequence of the investment in substantially increasing the number of removal places is that we can reconfigure where we place single people and families, which will help in future. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration and I have discussed with the Churches and the Scottish Trades Union Congress the potential for reconfiguring in a way that meets my hon. Friend's understandable concerns. I thank her for her constant interest in the matter. The challenge that we face, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) spelled out in his debate last Thursday in Westminster Hall, is that some people who should know better talk a lot of nonsense about Dungavel.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP)

It seems to me that the Home Secretary is saying, in effect, that he plans to ignore the fundamental concern of the Children's Commissioner for Scotland, the unions, the Churches and civic Scotland, which would be quite contemptible. He specifically mentioned electronic tagging as an alternative to detention. Will he clarify whether he plans to tag children of asylum seekers who have committed no crime whatever?

Mr. Blunkett

When I mentioned comments made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I was referring to his descriptions of people calling Dungavel a "hell on earth" and politicians—some of whom have presumably never been to Dungavel—describing the centre in totally unacceptable ways. On cue, the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), representing the Scottish National party, accuses us of ignoring the Churches, when I had just said that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration and I met representatives of the Churches two months ago; of ignoring the STUC, when I had just said that we had met its representatives as well; and of ignoring the Children's Commissioner for Scotland, whom the Minister of State has just agreed to meet. What sort of nonsense is that? I do not mind those who cannot hear not understanding, but those who can should open their ears and listen.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at least for the time being, detention centres are an unwelcome but necessary part of asylum policy? Does he agree also that those who try to focus the debate on the detention of children are simply trying to erect a smokescreen behind which to campaign for the total removal of detention centres, which is a prerequisite to the introduction of the policy that they support—a completely open asylum policy, which is naive and simplistic?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend is substantially right. Such people also argue that immigration should be a matter for Scotland, not a reserved matter—

Annabelle Ewing

Hear, hear.

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Lady supports that, but the consequences of such a policy would be very interesting indeed. The Scottish National party would have to put border controls at Hadrian's wall, which would be bizarre. I think that we have now exposed the SNP's policies for what they are.

It is true that, where the family resists removal, that inevitably ensures that the children have to be held in circumstances—not necessarily only in removal centres—that would be less satisfactory than we would wish. However, it is a choice of the parents. The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) knows that the Government would never contemplate tagging children. To suggest otherwise was a disgrace.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab)

I am sure that the meeting with the children's commissioner will be widely welcomed throughout the political parties. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider one point for that meeting, and that is the question of people being held at Dungavel who are awaiting deportation after completing a sentence. Will he consider how we can remove those people from families and their children at Dungavel?

Mr. Blunkett

Fortunately, we are removing such individuals much more quickly than it is possible to remove families. The legislation that will come before the House later today will further assist us in doing that because it will reduce the unwarranted use of judicial review. However, I take the point, and the expanded removal centre facilities will help us better to segregate those of different categories. To pick up a point made by my hon. Friend, the Minister of State will welcome meeting Professor Kathleen Marshall. He has met her on many occasions because he happened to go to University with her.

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