Parliament must keep meaningful limits on child detention

As Parliament debates the final stages of the Illegal Migration Bill, CCLC says: The Government must keep meaningful limits on child detention

We know that locking up infants and children is wrong because we have abolished it once before. In 2011, a Conservative-led government made ending child detention a flagship policy. It was right to do so.

Administrative detention without charge is one of the most draconian powers of the state. To wield that power over babies and children is even more extreme.

Nor are we ignorant of detention’s effects on children. It actively does them harm. There is no shortage of evidence of children regressing, being traumatised, witnessing and being subject to violence, and living with life-long impacts. As recently as 31 March this year, the Home Office itself published guidance which said:

a period of detention can have a significant and negative impact on a child’s mental or physical health and development

This level of harm is wholly unacceptable. It cannot be justified by the government pursuing what it admits is an experimental policy and hoping that it will have a deterrent effect on smugglers.

To take an action as severe as locking up infants and children, the state must have a very strong policy rationale for why those children themselves need detaining, not some guesswork about what some unrelated adults might do if those infants and children were not locked up, whether it be smugglers or adults supposedly pretending to be children. Doing harm to babies, toddlers and children is not acceptable as collateral damage. It is not a tolerable side-effect.

A non-concession

The level of alarm that reintroducing child detention provoked has caused the government to seek to appear as if it is giving reassurances. But make no mistake: on the face of the Illegal Migration Bill, children – including separated children – can be detained indefinitely.

The Government has said that the limited circumstances of unaccompanied children’s detention must be set out in regulations. But there are circumstances given on the face of the Bill and they are themselves routine – pending a grant of leave, pending a decision to remove and pending removal. Regulations, even regulations that need to be voted on in Parliament, will do little to change the wide-ranging detention powers the government is giving itself over children.

The Government has further said that via regulations it may specify time limits on detaining lone children. But in the same breath the Minister admitted such time limits may never come to pass, when he said on 28 June:

The Bill also includes a power to place a time limit on the detention of unaccompanied children where that detention is for the purposes of removal. We will keep the operation of these provisions under review, and should it be necessary to introduce a time limit, we have the means to do so.

Now, when the new detention powers have been roundly rejected by the House of Lords and there is mounting opposition to locking up children, the Government has tried to pass off a miniscule concession as doing something for unaccompanied children.

All the Government’s new amendment would do is allow one very specific group of unaccompanied children – those detained for removal, described by the government as a minority of unaccompanied children – to apply for bail after eight days. Not be released, just to apply for bail. Nothing said about how difficult it would be in practice for such a child to find a lawyer to help them to apply.

With the amendment relating just to unaccompanied children detained for removal purposes, this leaves in place powers for the government to detain all unaccompanied children indefinitely when they first arrive in the UK. It raises the spectre of the Home Office operating detention centres for unaccompanied children with absolutely no limit on the time they can be detained for.

Further, the Government has given no constraints whatsoever for children who are with their families. These are some of the youngest children, like the three Kurdish-Iranian children Anita aged nine, Armin aged six and Artin aged one, who tragically never arrived in the UK after their boat capsized in the Channel in late 2020.

All those who think those children should never have been on that boat making that dangerous crossing need to ask themselves, should those children be punished if they survive? Is it right to actively do them harm by detaining them if they reach the UK?

These are children who have already been through things unimaginable to most of us. Locking them up is the opposite of affording them the recovery and protection they need, and which is the UK’s legal obligation.

We abolished child detention for very good reasons. Let us not allow this country to put vulnerable, traumatised children behind bars.

The Government must keep absolute time limits on child detention. Its concessions so far will not do.