Home Office urged to use force against detained children

Article updated – see below

More children should be detained and guards should have the option of using force against them. That's the extraordinary conclusion of the Independent Family Returns Panel, chaired by former director of Education and Children's Services Chris Spencer.

The panel is tasked with providing the Home Office with advice about the forced return of families whose immigration cases have reached a dead end. It is a dispiriting read. Its authors want the system to take several steps back, lock up children and their families more regularly and reintroduce the use of force in the removals process.

In their own words:

"Clearly this is a very emotive subject and any behaviour policy which includes the use of physical intervention with children would require an appropriate system of intervention, thorough training of the officers and clear guidance about when it should and should not be used. Intervention of this kind with children should be used rarely and only after encouraging the parents to take responsibility for their children's behaviour. Where parents refuse to take parental responsibility or, as occasionally happens, even encourage the children to disrupt, officers should deploy a significant number of strategies and techniques to encourage or distract the child before using more intrusive forms of behaviour management."

They heap on the caveats and include all the pernicious euphemisms about 'behaviour management' they can manage, but the message is simple: reintroduce the use of force to help remove children. Rather grimly, they suggest they arrived at this conclusion out of emotional concern for the child.

"It is not the decision of the panel to approve the use of physical intervention strategies during the return of a family. However, once a decision is taken to remove a family there are strong arguments for ensuring that the return happens sooner rather than later given the sometimes traumatic nature of the event and the emotional impact on children of having to experience a number of return attempts."

Current rules only allow for force if the child poses to a risk to himself, others or property. But a prison inspectors' report into Cedar detention centre, where families are detained ahead of removal, showed that even under these rules, standards slip.

The prison inspector found force had been used six times against the 39 families going through Cedars.

"Children had become very distressed during forced removals and it was not possible to measure the psychological impact of removal on them. Documentation was sound, but recordings of the incidents were not always adequate. Two children had been escorted using 'physical control in care' techniques. In these cases force was used to effect removal rather than to prevent harm. In one case, an escort had grabbed a disruptive detainee by the hair before reverting to conventional techniques."

One pregnant woman was forced into a wheelchair.

"When she resisted, it was tipped-up with staff holding her feet. At one point she slipped down from the chair and the risk of injury to the unborn child was significant. There is no safe way to use force against a pregnant woman, and to initiate it for the purpose of removal is to take an unacceptable risk." [Italics added]

Not content with calling for the use of force against children, the family returns panel also called for more children to be detained, contrary to promises the coalition made when it came to power. The report criticises the Barnardos' condition that no more than ten per cent of the families returned each year are accommodated through Cedars.

The report says:

"The panel has always considered this condition to be somewhat arbitrary and unrelated to children's best interests."

It is an extraordinary thing to say. The evidence on severe psychological harm to children from being kept in detention is clear. No-one in possession of the facts and concerned about children's wellbeing would ever wish for more of them to see the inside of a detention centre.

A 2009 study of a British detention centre found all 11 children who received a psychological assessment reported depression or anxiety.

"Sleep problems, somatic complaints, poor appetite, emotional symptoms, and behavioural difficulties were common. According to paediatric assessment eight out of 20 children had lost weight. Nutritional, developmental, educational, and child protection concerns were raised. Detained children were found to be experiencing mental and physical health difficulties of recent onset, which appeared to be related to the detention experience. These findings support previous Australian studies demonstrating that detention is not in the best interest of the child."

And yet the panel has somehow convinced itself that what we need are more children in detention.

In a deeply unpleasant piece of reasoning, it frames these policy suggestions as if they are motivated by concern for the child. A passage suggesting children should be deported quickly is worth reprinting for the sheer level of cognitive dissonance on display.

"The longer a family remains in the UK, the deeper their roots go and the more attached children become to their surroundings and their friends… Indeed, children in families where casework has not been progressed in a timely way have often come to think of the UK as their home having lived a large proportion of their lives in this country. Some children within the family returns process have been born in this country and are therefore unfamiliar with the country to which they are returning. Priority should be given to such cases as children are generally more adaptable to major change the younger they are."

Worryingly, the Home Office response to the recommendation on violence is to say that it is under review. "Any changes will be the subject of public consultation", it adds.

Update 11:08:

Sarah Campbell, research and policy manager at Bail for Immigration Detainees, commented:

"We find it extraordinary that the panel is recommending that more children should be detained given the overwhelming evidence of the harm suffered by detained children.

"We are appalled that the panel is encouraging the Home Office to use physical force against children to facilitate their removal from the UK. It is worrying that the panel previously failed to pick up on clear concerns about the use of force against children. It is still more troubling that the panel is now recommending that the Home Office recommence using force against children."

Update 15:47: Liberal Democrat sources in the Home Office have told me they're "surprised" to see the recommendations from the panel.