Nick Clegg dodges, again, the question of what he’s doing to end child detention

Labour MP for Wigan Lisa Nandy writes about deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s failure, once again, to answer questions on his pledge to end child detention.

By Lisa Nandy MP (Labour, Wigan)

Today in the Commons chamber Nick Clegg refused to tell me when he will end the immigration detention of children. Two years ago he couldn’t stop talking about the scandal of child detention; now, 18 months after pledging its end in the coalition agreement, he is strangely silent.

Watch it:

The newly appointed deputy prime minister used this issue to mark his coalition out from the previous government.

He said:

“It’s that cycle of inefficiency and ineffectiveness and inhumanity that we’re trying to flip round into humanity and effectiveness.”

On December 16th 2010 Clegg made a major speech setting out the coalition’s plan to stop detaining children by May this year.

We were told:

“There is no greater test of a civilised society than how it treats its young children.”

He was right, and it was welcome.

But on that measure his government has failed. Yarl’s Wood no longer accommodates families, but last month figures revealed hundreds of children, a third unaccompanied, are routinely detained at ports. Astonishingly the UK Border Agency doesn’t know how many children it detains, or for how long.

Under Clegg’s test, when a child is identified they should be immediately referred to social services for assessment and support, not detained.

Children are still held because they are wrongly assumed to be adults. Many families are detained because one member is deemed to pose a risk and campaigners say Pease Pottage, established by the coalition to hold children with their families before leaving the UK, inflicts the same harm: weight loss, bedwetting and depression.

This week I tried to table a question to ask Clegg why, six months after his deadline, hundreds of children are still being detained. His department transferred it to the Home Office. So I went to the chamber and asked him directly. His response?

‘Labour didn’t end child detention.’

He is right. Despite extending the Children Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to migrant children, the previous Government didn’t end child detention and absolutely should have done.

Clegg was correct to deride the practice as ‘shameful’ and that it must end immediately. It would have also been welcome if he had succeeded in shifting the culture in the UKBA, as he claims, to one that places:

“Protection of children over paranoia over our borders. One that prioritises doing the right thing [rather] than looking and sounding tough.”

But he hasn’t. Instead, he has talked tough on child detention and failed to deliver.

The culture remains in place. The presumption, where children are concerned, is still not freedom, care and support but distrust and risk-aversion. Too many children are still presumed to be adults and too many families deemed to be dangerous or likely to abscond. There is still no sensible policy across UKBA for properly assessing risk.

This is a too familiar story of flagship promises that are easily made and easily broken. More importantly, Clegg should not be brushing this under the carpet.

He was right to make the promise, and he must be held to it.

See also:

Clegg’s speech: Long on dramatic pauses, short on factsDaniel Elton, September 21st 2011

When will the coalition deliver on its pledge to end child detention?Daniel Elton, September 8th 2011

Campaigners fear child detention coalition back trackDaniel Elton, January 2nd 2011

Time for coalition to deliver on child detention pledgeDaniel Elton, December 16th 2010

Scotland welcomes coalition policy to end child detentionEd Jacobs, May 19th 2010

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