House of Lords / 4 Nov 2009 : Column 317
Tabled By Lord HyltonTo ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will establish a limit for the length of detention under immigration and asylum law, reduce the number of detainees, and prevent deportation breaching Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I start from the proposition that it is wrong to lock up parents and children who have committed no crimes in this country. To do so when they have little or no legal advice, and for periods of unknown length, is doubly bad. Those affected are mainly asylum applicants who have not succeeded in being recognised as refugees. They also include people who have overstayed their leave to remain. All of them may already have been here for years and have married here and produced children. All may have very real fears of what might happen to them if they are removed to their countries of origin, whatever the Government may say about memoranda of understanding.
Political persecution, tribal and personal vendettas, and sexual and gender crime persist in all too many countries. A recent joint report from the Scottish Refugee Council emphasises the sufferings of women, both in their home countries and after their arrival here. That council recommends that the UK Border Agency should identify vulnerable and traumatised women from the start so that they may receive appropriate care. UKBA should also screen out from the detention process pregnant women, all mental health cases, as well as torture survivors.
In the second quarter of this year, 235 children were detained. About 7,000 persons entered detention in each quarter of this year, almost balanced by those leaving. Two hundred and fifty-five had been detained for between six and 12 months, and 225 for over a year.
The detention of children is contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That fact compels the Government to derogate from the convention. This is a great shame on the 20th anniversary of the convention, which we as a country helped to draft. Detention of children and parents, together with the workings of the system, have been strongly criticised by the UK children’s commissioners, the chief inspectors of prisons, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and international and non-governmental organisations. In 2006, 13,500 members of the public backed the campaign called “No Place for a Child”. In addition, 137 Members of another place signed an Early Day Motion and 19 Scottish parliamentarians added their concern.
In 2006, an all-party group made up of the honourable Member who is now the Speaker of another place, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the honourable Member for Oxford West and Abingdon published a paper on alternatives to detention. What, I ask, has happened since then? Have the Government studied the non-custodial methods used in Sweden, Canada, Australia and the United States? Have they reflected sufficiently on the problems that constantly arise when we wish to return individuals and families to such countries as Somalia, Zimbabwe Sudan and Iraq? Will they start granting indefinite leave to remain on compassionate grounds? Will they provide casework and legal advice to vulnerable people, especially those with children, all of whom can readily be identified? I believe that a casework and advice approach would be vastly cheaper than the present expensive detention system. It would not make families more likely to abscond, because they would wish to remain in contact with essential services, including health and education.
In 2006, the then Minister admitted that the average direct cost of keeping one person in detention was £812 per week. The budget for Yarlswood alone at that time was £120 million per year. Both figures must have risen substantially; they would be reduced by more enlightened policies.
The text of this Question includes a time limit for the length of detention. Will the Government respond to that, if only by way of non-binding guidance? Will they release detainees immediately when deportations are cancelled or postponed, as often happens? It also refers to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning respect for private and family life. It covers non-nationals as well as citizens. I suggest that our Government, by their detention and deportation policies are regularly in breach of the convention.
Of course there are six exceptions to the right under Article 8, but I cannot see that any of them is likely to affect the parents and children we are discussing. I deeply regret there being so little change or improvement since the 2006 parliamentary discussion paper that I mentioned.
I turn now to my visit to Yarlswood centre last month. I noticed that it was on an industrial estate, almost half an hour’s drive from the centre of Bedford. It must therefore be difficult for friends and relatives to visit. I heard complaints from two families held there, one of whom was detained on the same day that they received their asylum refusal. Rule 35 is being breached because detainees are not always asked at the reception interview whether they have previously suffered torture. Medical care is poor and pregnant women are not given the dietary supplements they need. Those facing deportation to malarial countries are not always offered prophylaxis. The reception for mobile telephones is poor at the site. In order to get bail, the surety is obliged to travel to Birmingham to appear in person, while the bail demanded is never less than £500, and sometimes much more. It is hardly surprising that so few applicants achieve bail. In some cases, detainees are frequently transferred between centres and suffer physical abuse while in transit. Will the Government attend immediately to such complaints and find out whether they also arise from other detention centres? Will they appoint an independent reviewer to look at the need for continued detention in individual cases? This is my proposal, which I have not so far heard elsewhere. The reviewer could start on those held longest, whom I mentioned earlier.
I suggest that successive Governments have failed over many years to balance their duty to protect vulnerable people with the need for asylum and immigration control. Detention of parents and children should be ended and the total of detainees should be much reduced. Better casework would increase the numbers who now take voluntary repatriation, or resettlement through the International Organization for Migration. I argue that successive Governments have acted incompetently and with a cruel lack of humanity. By contrast, English volunteers have rallied round each detention centre, forming support, welfare and befriending groups. The Government should therefore follow their lead by excluding parents with children and other vulnerable people and by treating other detainees humanely. This would help to improve the reputation of this country overseas.
Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this debate. The detention and treatment of asylum seekers is an area of major contention. Asylum and immigration are often treated as a single issue. It is important to distinguish between those who have a genuine motive for seeking asylum and those who simply want to enter Britain for emigration purposes. We have a duty to genuine asylum seekers but not to those who wish to enter Britain on dubious grounds.
Britain has a proud history of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution and violence, as a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention. In some circumstances, it may be difficult for an applicant to prove that they are a genuine case and a sophisticated system is needed to ensure that undeserving applicants who pose as vulnerable citizens are not granted asylum.
We should take pride in our status as a participant of the United Nations Convention against Torture. Reports have estimated that torture takes place in 132 countries around the world. Although I have the utmost compassion for victims of torture and persecution, it is essential to strike the right balance between accepting applicants and deporting applicants under the asylum procedure.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo tells us that a change of government does not always lead to the end of violence. This implies that the international community has a duty to put pressure on the Governments of unstable countries to ensure that a change in regime delivers an end to the persecution of citizens.
More stringent checks should be carried out by immigration officers prior to making a decision to place a person in detention. Greater transparency in the process is a priority, especially as there is no maximum period of detention. This situation does not sit well with many asylum applicants and could be perceived as breaching Article 8.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It has been reported that the average length of stay in an immigration removal centre varies between 16 to 61 days. However, research produced earlier this year revealed a case of an asylum seeker who was detained in a centre for approximately eight years prior to deportation. There is a genuine risk that those held in detention centres for longer periods are more likely to abscond or enter illegal employment.
Britain and Denmark are the only European Union members who have chosen to opt out of the EU returns directive, which implements a time limit of 18 months for detaining individuals. This decision has not proven to be effective. The varied periods of detention reported to date reflect the failures inherent in the decision not to set a detention limit. Several other EU countries successfully deport applicants while adhering to the requirements of the ECHR. Will the Minister give due consideration to enforcing a maximum period of detention for asylum seekers and migrants?
It is not in the best interests of asylum seekers or our communities to detain citizens for such long periods of time. The average cost to the taxpayer for each individual held in a detention centre for a week is estimated to be £812. I welcome the decision to introduce fast-track and super-fast-track systems at Oakington, Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood for detainees where claims are decided within three to seven days. My only caveat is that the process for these accelerated applications should be subjected to thorough investigations, where the complexity of cases is taken into account prior to reaching a decision.
Centrally held data on detainees should also provide details of the number of asylum seekers in the criminal justice system. It is a shocking indictment of the current scheme that accurate data for the number of offenders without leave to remain in this country are not available. It is right that asylum seekers or immigrants
who commit offences while awaiting decisions should be deported. We must not convey the message that we will give residency to those who show a flagrant disregard for our laws.
The mental health of asylum seekers must be taken into account when deciding on whether they are suitable for detention. Genuine asylum seekers, by their nature, have been subjected to sustained torture, violence and persecution. We therefore have a duty to ensure that if we decide to place applicants in detention centres, this does not compromise their mental and emotional health.
The British Medical Journal has reported that a majority of detainees who are held for long periods are more likely to acquire mental health problems and has also implied that lengthy detention can aggravate existing difficulties. In extreme cases, some detainees have engaged in self-harming or, in tragic circumstances, a number have committed suicide. These are wholly undesirable outcomes which serve as a reminder that we must honour our commitment to vulnerable citizens. It is also essential to provide staff in detention centres with adequate training as these establishments often house both asylum seekers and migrants. Can the Minister say whether this is implemented?
An effective border security system is the only way to prevent people from illegally entering Britain. Immigration benefits our country. However, it also places a strain on our population and resources. Economic migrants played an important part in developing a number of our industries, such as the National Health Service. Despite the socio-economic benefits of immigration, it is important for us to implement a system that is both prudent and fair.
It is clear that Britain was not prepared for the influx of citizens resulting from the 2004 enlargement of the European Union. It is only sensible that an annual limit is thus placed on the number of non-EU migrants. It is vital to enforce such restrictions as we consider the impact of the rising population on our infrastructure and local communities.
I have come across a few cases of people who have been granted asylum in Britain from countries which do not have a history of persecuting their citizens. I was particularly surprised by the details of a case I read as the grounds for asylum were, in my opinion, unfounded. This relates to a request for asylum from a Jamaican citizen. What are the grounds on which the application was approved?
It is worth stating that we have a duty to our citizens to grant asylum only to those in genuine need of sanctuary. Asylum and immigration share similarities in that they both require compromise and understanding from our citizens. It is crucial that governments do not abuse this responsibility.
Lord Best: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hylton for initiating this debate and for his powerful speech. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe, set up in 2007 by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and chaired by Patrick Wintour-an expert in this field-with the well-known David Banks as our honorary secretary. The Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe has set out to assist Zimbabwean refugees and asylum seekers in the UK who wish to pursue courses of professional development, vocational training and placements that will equip them to participate in the rebuilding of the economy and institutions of Zimbabwe when circumstances allow them to return home.
The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, repeated a Statement on 29 October from the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, Phil Woolas. The Minister announced some enhancements to the package of assistance to Zimbabweans who return voluntarily. This will aid those taking their skills back to help rebuild the country. However, alongside the changes to the voluntary returns package, the Minister also announced that he was considering the position of enforced returns to Zimbabwe-an issue under review since the Home Office deferred enforced returns to Zimbabwe in September 2006, following a moratorium enforced through the courts.
Research undertaken in March 2009 by the Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe and published in a report, Zimbabwe: Rebuilding a Nation, found:
“The relationship between the Zimbabwean community in the UK and the UK Border Agency is extremely tense and the high levels of suspicion and mistrust could undermine any initiatives that are linked to return”.
The report quotes the United Kingdom Border Agency’s January 2009 estimates for Zimbabweans in the UK, which suggest that there may be living here as many as 70,000 failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers or Zimbabweans without valid leave to remain. This figure suggests those potentially eligible for removal to Zimbabwe could present the UKBA with a huge task, with concomitant strain on pre-removal detention centres. If the so-called normalisation of returns policy to Zimbabwe is pursued, I suspect there will be prolonged legal battles in many cases.
I detect an inconsistency between the approach of the Home Office and the UK Borders Agency, and that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. The latter organisations’ approach to Zimbabwe suggests that the political reforms are not yet sufficiently embedded for the Department for International Development to normalise development aid. Support is restricted to humanitarian assistance and through channels not susceptible to abuse by ZANU-PF. It would seem premature to normalise enforced returns of vulnerable asylum seekers while the political atmosphere remains highly charged and human rights organisations report a resurgence in politically motivated violence.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office judges that it is not yet time for the EU to consider lifting the restrictive measures-the travel ban and assets freeze-imposed on 203 named Zimbabwean Ministers and others associated with the abuse of human rights. This would certainly suggest that the Home Office is acting hastily in considering it is time to normalise enforced returns.
The inclusive government in Zimbabwe remains fragile. Tomorrow, 5 November, a crisis summit has been convened in Maputo, Mozambique, by the Southern African Development Community. This will try to put on the right track the power-sharing global political agreement following the partial withdrawal from participation by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change.
Only last week, the UN Rapporteur on Torture who had been invited to visit Zimbabwe by Prime Minister Tsvangirai, was refused entry when he arrived at Harare airport and sent back to South Africa. This gives some indication of the continuing state of political confusion and volatility in the country.
While there has been a moratorium on enforced returns to Zimbabwe, quite a number of Zimbabweans entered the UK on Malawian passports, even though they have never lived in Malawi. There have been several occasions when UKBA has attempted to carry out the enforced removal of these individuals, often preceded by lengthy detention. There is great concern within the Zimbabwean community in the UK for the safety of Zimbabweans sent to Malawi by the Home Office. They have no family or friends in the country and have never lived there. They fear they will be expelled by the Malawian authorities as having no right of abode and returned to Zimbabwe.
I hope the Minister will give a positive response to the comments from my noble friend Lord Hylton. Can he also make a statement on Zimbabwe that would help regain the confidence and co-operation of the Zimbabwean in the UK? That co-operation is an essential precursor to a positive engagement in preparing individuals for voluntary return to participate in rebuilding Zimbabwe when the time is right.
The Home Secretary said at the Royal Society of Arts on Monday:
“The legacy problems with unreturned foreign national prisoners and asylum seekers may have accumulated under previous administrations, but they continued to be ignored for too long on our watch … Like many other countries, we struggled to contain the huge surge in migration-legal and illegal-that emerged from countries such as Kosovo, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Somalia”.
The legacy of neglect so described by the Home Secretary should not now be used to justify swinging to the other extreme and implementing draconian or inhumane policies.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, about seven weeks ago when I was flying from Pittsburgh to Chicago, I sat next to a very staunch Republican. What he thought of President Obama could not be repeated in this Chamber. He thought the healthcare proposals were totally not required. They only affected, he said, 36 million “illegals”. We are on dangerous ground if we take the attitude that people can be disregarded and pushed to one side because they are different from us. They are only asylum seekers, they are only refugees, they might only be migrants-but they are people, and people are people whatever their background. Whatever their situation, they are people who should be respected and treated-especially if they are children-with compassion and love. When we treat them in such a way that their life becomes intolerable and harsh, we are creating a tremendous bomb that could explode in the future and affect every one of us. Wherever people are from, whatever their background, whatever their situation, they should be treated with respect and as though they have tremendous potential and a great deal to give.
A little while ago the Watoto children’s choir was singing in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, and it was a tremendous concert. At the end, the children, who ranged from six to 13 years of age, were asked what they would like to be when they grow up. One said, “I want to be an airline pilot”; another said, “I want to be a lawyer”. A little lad of 10 said, “I want to be President of Uganda”. Children have dreams and, whatever their situation, they need to be nurtured in such a way that there is a possibility that those dreams, in time, will be realised.
The Refugee Council has done a tremendous amount of work, which I welcome. The council is opposed to the detention of asylum seekers and believes that the current use of detention during and at the end of the asylum process is disproportionate and unnecessary. As has already been mentioned, it is wrong that there is no time limit on how long an asylum seeker can be detained and that administrative detention on such a scale can happen without scrutiny by an independent body. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on that.
I have already mentioned my unhappiness at the detention of children: I believe that children should never be detained. Would we ever subject our own children to the conditions and the hopelessness that we allow other people’s children-asylum seekers’ children-to be subjected to? It is alleged that in Yarl’s Wood-the Minister may say that my figure is not correct-83 children last year were detained for 28 days or more. That is horrific. The Children’s Commissioner for England said:
“The UK should not be detaining any child who has had an unsuccessful asylum claim . Not only is there no reason to continue the administrative detention of children, we present evidence in this report to demonstrate that it may be harmful to their health and well-being”.
The commissioner went on to outline a range of concerns about the experiences of children during detention and removal, such as their feelings of loss and anxiety. Imagine a little child whose whole life is dark and hopeless, and then consider that we are adding to that through their detention in our centres. The commissioner says that there is a lack of counselling and emotional support and that there are issues related to healthcare.
When the UKBA revises the fast-track process, I hope that it will look at the evidence of the past two years. A promise has been given that it will be revised; when will that happen?
Those who suffer particularly when they are detained include youngsters whose age is in dispute: they are asked, “Are you an adult?” “Are you a child?” Pregnant women, survivors of torture, people with serious health problems and those whose removal from the UK is not imminent continue to be detained. Here I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Avebury-unfortunately he is in hospital-who has led the way on many of these concerns over the past few years.
We are concerned that when people are detained they cannot access legal representation or exercise their right to apply for bail to be let out of detention.
In some circumstances this can lead to prolonged periods of detention which, as has already been mentioned, are never subject to external scrutiny. The latest snapshot figure for detention shows that 225 people have been detained for one year. This is unacceptable. Detention should be used only as an exceptional measure at the end of the asylum process, and for a limited time in order to effect removal.
There have been repeated reports by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons which highlight inadequate welfare arrangements and a systematic failure to deal with concerns about detention. We are concerned about the ending of the country policies which gave a list of acceptable countries to which people could be returned. That has gone and now there are returns to countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka where such returns are not sustainable. About a year ago I invited the Minister to come with me to Heathrow Airport, where the first deportations to Zimbabwe were to take place. That time has gone but I still invite him to share the concern of these ordinary people whose lives are among the most vulnerable.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for introducing the debate. He is one of the great standard bearers for this issue in this House. We need constantly to monitor our immigration and asylum procedures.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for introducing this important debate. It is imperative, given the serious effect that our country’s policy has on thousands of people’s lives that we get it right and employ regulations which allow genuine refugees to be welcomed into our country and ensure that those who should not be here, and who can go home, are required to go home quickly. However, I regret to say that the system, although much improved over the past decade, still has a long way to go before it strikes this balance. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Sheikh for highlighting the problems of getting this balance.
There are serious problems with holding asylum seekers in detention. There is the huge cost-around £10 million a year; there does not seem to be suitable accommodation; there are concerns that those held are not receiving adequate legal advice and information; and when they are required to leave there do not seem to be any of the necessary arrangements in place to prepare them to go home.
The Government are well aware that they have a problem on their hands and they have identified the need for better organisation to prevent delays in the asylum system. In 1997 the Government created the new asylum model; more than 10 years later, although there have been some improvements, the system is still too slow. The evidence speaks for itself: the Government figures fall far short of their own targets. For example, the target for processing cases within 30 days in 2007 was 50 per cent; the figure completed was 16 per cent. The Government hoped to resolve 75 per cent of cases in 2009 in six months; currently only 65 per cent of cases are achieving that goal.
We on these Benches agree with the immigration Minister, Mr Woolas, that the current asylum process is a failure and that it is causing,
“untold human misery and division within our communities”.
That at least was frank. It is reported by the Centre for Social Justice on asylum that just 3 per cent of claimants leave the country within three months of the determination of their case. What, in plain terms, are the Government doing to address that failure?
The Minister also needs to address himself to the grave matter of children in detention, which has been such a theme during this debate. Children should not be behind bars for any reason unless it really cannot be avoided. Children are detained in the immigration estate in two circumstances, either because they are part of a family that is being detained or, if they are unaccompanied, while alternative care arrangements are made.
I am well aware that that is contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, though I am also aware that the interpretation of the Strasbourg court is that our Human Rights Act blocks deportation where it might infringe on family life. As my honourable friend Dominic Grieve has said, that goes further than either the convention or the Strasbourg court and risks fettering our ability to deport some criminals or those who pose a risk to our security. These difficulties are recognised by the Government; I quote another Answer by Mr Phil Woolas, the immigration Minister, to a Written Question in June this year:
“The UK Border Agency would always prefer that those whose applications to stay in the United Kingdom have failed, leave the country voluntarily. This is particularly so of families with children. However, detention is regrettable where individuals fail to leave and where removal therefore has to be enforced”.-[Official Report, Commons; 1/6/09; col. 167W.]
We have sympathy with that statement.
My honourable friend Dominic Grieve has said that a future Conservative Government would intend to produce a new Bill of Rights, possibly replacing the Human Rights Act or at least amending it to remedy its shortcomings, not the least of which being that it has not provided adequate protection on our core freedoms, but also to free the various courts in the United Kingdom of Strasbourg jurisprudence and enable them to use their own interpretations.
The three immigration removal centres in the United Kingdom that can accommodate families with children-Dungavel House, Tinsley House and Yarl’s Wood-have been referred to. The first two centres accommodate family groups for approximately 72 hours. When detention is likely to go beyond that, families are often transferred to Yarl’s Wood, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for sharing his experience of a visit to that centre. Does the Minister feel that that is an adequate and satisfactory arrangement? To quote my honourable friend Damian Green:
“Gordon Brown promised ‘automatic deportation’ of foreign criminals, but we have nearly 1,200 of them locked up very expensively in centres not designed to hold hardened criminals”.
Not only is this a waste of money, it is dangerous. The riots and fires that we have seen at detention centres in recent years often come about because criminals become the dominant group inside the centre, a point that my noble friend Lord Sheikh referred to. Ministers try to talk tough on immigration but they are still, after all this time, acting weakly.
Ministers claim to be looking at alternatives to detaining children and families, although I am afraid that little progress has been made. I would, however, be grateful for an update on the Glasgow experiment, which I gather is building on the Ashford system that did not meet with great success, with, I believe, only one family going back under the voluntary repatriation scheme.
Until recently the Government did not even hold data on the number of children held in detention. However, thanks to pressure from my honourable friend Chris Grayling, the Government were pushed into collecting data on the detention of children, which have recently been published for the first time. The figures revealed that 470 minors were being detained with their families in June 2009, with most being under five years of age. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the provision of this essential statistical information will enable all those with an interest to monitor how effective government policy is in this area.
It is thanks to pressure from the Opposition and other groups, for example, that the Government finally announced their intention to change the law to require the UK Border Agency to safeguard children by making it subject to Section 11 of the Children Act. Quite simply, the Government have been left playing catch-up. This country needs an effective and humane asylum and deportation system. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what his Government are doing to make sure that we get one.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this debate. I am well aware of the interest that he takes in matters relating to immigration detention, especially relating to families with children, and I acknowledge the important work that he has done in this area. I also send my best wishes and, I am sure, those of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and hope that he rapidly gets out of hospital; he has done a lot in this area as well.
I have listened carefully to the important issues that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and other noble Lords, and I will try to deal with the comments as we go through. If I miss anything specific, then if I am asked afterwards, I shall get back to noble Lords in writing.
Our policy as a Government on detention is clear. Although there is a presumption in favour of granting temporary admission, detention may be appropriate in several circumstances. It may be appropriate in order to effect removal, or while a person’s identity and claim are being established, which, my goodness me, is sometimes extremely difficult. I am not sure if it was the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, or the noble Lord, Lord Best, who talked about Malawi passports, but it is sometimes difficult and long-winded to establish someone’s identity; you have to remember that these people are fighting not to be identified. Detention may be appropriate where a person presents a risk of abscond-some people have done that in the past when being held-or where an asylum application is capable of being done very quickly, which has been touched on as well.
Detention should be used sparingly and for the shortest period necessary. We believe that that is especially true in the case of families with children, and that is reflected in our practice of not detaining families with children until close to their planned removal from the UK; they are usually detained just a few days before removal. There are some exceptions, but that is normally the case.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, correctly says, the procedures for dealing with possible asylum seekers need to be comprehensive. The process is inevitably very complex, but we have quite a good system in place. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, mentioned the importance of statistics, and I agree entirely. Until you know some of these statistics, you cannot tell how well you are doing. It has been a good step forward that we now have some of those data; indeed, it was people in this House putting on pressure that made that happen.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, asked if staff at detention centres were properly trained to deal with failed asylum seekers. I assure him that before custody staff are accredited as detainee custody officers they all receive full training, which includes issues such as diversity awareness and cultural and religious awareness, and then more practical issues such as first aid, control and restraint, and suicide and self-harm prevention. The training programmes are comprehensive and approved by the UKBA.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, claimed that we are in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and that we derogate from it. That is not the case; we withdrew our reservation to the convention last November. We have no intention of enforcing immigration laws in a manner that is inconsistent with our treaty obligations. However, the best interests of the child, as contained in Article 3, are not paramount and can be outweighed on occasion by other factors.
It is worth saying that children are most usually detained under immigration Act powers as part of a family group whose detention is considered necessary. We consider that it is normally better to have those children with their family, rather than taking the family and keeping the children somewhere else; we think that that would have more impact on the children. So this is by no means straightforward.
Noble Lords will also be aware-I think the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, mentioned this-of the new duty placed on the Secretary of State to make arrangements for ensuring that immigration functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the UK. That duty came into force on Monday, again because of work done in this Chamber.
I was asked about legal advice. On arrival at an immigration removal centre, all detainees are required to be informed of their right to legal representation. If they do not have representation already, information is made available so that they can make arrangements to access it. To facilitate this, the Legal Services Commission runs on-site legal advice surgeries.
Reference was made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and others to vulnerable groups. Pregnant women are not normally detained, except where removal is imminent, and medical advice does not suggest confinement before then or, for women pregnant for less than 24 weeks, at Yarl’s Wood as part of the fast-track asylum process-which was commended by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh; we have moved a long way forward on that.
A couple of speakers touched on mental health issues. Noble Lords will be aware that issues of this kind can be wide ranging. A blanket policy that rules out detention in all such circumstances is wholly inappropriate. However, where medical advice is that a person’s detention is harming his or her health, this will be brought to the attention of the caseworker so that the detention can be reviewed. In some cases, it may be that the condition can be treated satisfactorily in detention or other action might have to be taken.
Where there is independent evidence that supports a detainee’s claim to have been tortured, such an individual would not normally be detained, but we cannot have a position where a claim to have been tortured would prevent a person being detained. We have to have some clarity on that.
A time limit on detention was raised by a number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who has urged us a number of times to establish one. I am afraid that the Government’s position on this is unchanged and we do not have plans to introduce a time limit. It remains our view that time limits on detention would simply serve the needs of those who, for example, made it very difficult to establish their true identity and country of origin and wished to frustrate us. If they knew that they had to keep doing this only for a certain time, it would make the situation more complicated. They would do that to reach a position to secure their release. The Government’s position is fully in line with Article 5 of the ECHR, which does not require time limits to be applied to immigration detention, and we have no plans to change that.
A number of speakers raised the important issue of independent oversight. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said there was a need for an independent reviewer. As we have said on a number of occasions, we are satisfied with the mechanisms that already exist for those who wish to challenge the lawfulness of their detention, either through judicial review or habeas corpus. They get legal advice, and we have no plans to alter those arrangements.
Lord Hylton: The point I was coming at was an administrative decision on detention, not a judicial one.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying. I need to think about that, if I may, and perhaps write to him, because I can see where he is coming from.
On alternatives to accommodation, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, mentioned the example in Ashford in Kent. That was not a great success. We tried very hard with it, because we would like to do something other than put people in detention, but it had very limited impact. We have taken forward some of the lessons learnt there to the project in Glasgow. We still do not have the full read-out from there; I do not think that it is going as well as we might have hoped. We also promote assisted voluntary returns, which, as the noble Viscount said, is our much preferred option. We would like to assist everyone in going back. We keep looking for some other way of doing it, but, at the moment, we have not identified a better, sounder method.
Reference was made to healthcare. I am afraid that I cannot respond to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, about Yarl’s Wood because it had an outbreak of chicken pox and I was not allowed to go. However, my noble colleague Lord Brett has been there and said that he did not recognise what was being said about it. He thought that it was rather pleasant. I need to go myself and have a look, so that I can make sensible comments about it.
On childcare, there is clear guidance on the offer of prophylactic medicines for people who are being sent back to their countries. We look after the dietary needs of pregnant women, who have access to the NHS. I actually think that we are remarkably good at these things.
The European Convention on Human Rights was mentioned by a number of speakers. Article 8 is fully reflected in UK Border Agency’s policies and procedures. Article 8 is a “qualified right”, which means that state interference with the right is permissible in certain specific situations. The guidance issued to caseworkers relating to Article 8 was recently updated to take account of important judgments by this House and the Court of Appeal and we are satisfied that it is appropriate.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned the difficulty of getting to Yarl’s Wood. As I have said, I have not visited it, but I am told that a free minibus service is available from the railway station for visiting family and friends. I know that it is on the outskirts of Bedford, but that does not sound like a bad facility to lay on for people who wish to visit.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, mentioned concerns about the efficiency of our system. I think that our system is not bad at all. The UK is receiving far fewer asylum applications per head of population than many of its European counterparts. We rank 15th; we have transformed the asylum system; we are introducing end-to-end management; and we concluded more than 60 per cent of new asylum cases within six months. So we are making some huge improvements.
We take seriously the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, on Zimbabwe. The situation there, we believe, is improving under the new, inclusive Government. We will continue to provide assistance. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord on the Malawi passports, because I do not know what the position is.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, spoke about the treatment of people trying to come into our wonderful country. I think that we treat people with respect, so I am not surprised that there are millions, if not billions, of people who would love to be here. I do not blame them; I would rather be here than anywhere else, because I love this country. However, we need a system that is proportionate in handling the demand. We have to remember always, as I have said previously, that each case, even if the person concerned is not meant to be here, is a personal tragedy, and we have to try to deal with it like that. In general, bearing in mind what we have to achieve, I think that the Government do that.
I once again take the opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for raising an important issue-perhaps we should have had even longer to debate it. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions.