Controversial doctor and Barnardo’s serve UK’s flawed child detention policy

Cracks show in ‘compassionate approach’ to locking up children for the sake of administrative convenience.

A doctor whose assessment of a vulnerable patient was deemed “irrational” and “tainted” by the then Mr Justice Leveson in a 2006 High Court Judgement has been appointed to an “independent” Panel guarding the welfare of children detained by the UK Border Agency. Dr John W Keen joined the Panel even though he had for years been paid to advise the Border Agency on whether people were medically fit to be deported.

His appointment exposes flaws in the Coalition government’s “compassionate approach” to asylum seeker families that was offered by deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in December 2010   in lieu of the actual ending of child detention promised in the Coalition Agreement  .

“We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes,” pledged the Coalition in May 2010. But the government continues to lock up asylum seeker children, the majority in two Border Agency facilities run by the world’s biggest security company, G4S.

They are “Cedars”, a new “family friendly” lock-up in the Sussex village of Pease Pottage, and Gatwick Airport’s Tinsley House, where a distressed 10-year-old tried to strangle   herself in October 2009. The new set-up is called “pre-departure accommodation”, not detention, and CEDARS is a government acronym for Compassion, Empathy, Dignity, Approachability, Respect and Support.

Fifty-three children were reported   detained in the first quarter of this year.* That is far fewer than under Labour, when numbers peaked at perhaps 2000 annually, but higher than might have been inferred from Clegg’s forecast of “tiny numbers of cases” detained as “an absolutely last resort”  .

Guardian of the “compassionate approach” is the “Independent Family Returns Panel”  . An “independent chair” and a pool of ten members provide “independent advice” purported to ensure that decisions to detain and remove families take full account of children’s welfare. A small interim Panel started work in March last year, with the full line-up announced this past April, Dr John W. Keen participating in both.

The Border Agency describes him as “a GP in Chiswick since 1988”, “chair of the Research Ethics Committee in both Central London and Brent”, and “Medical Adviser (Housing) to several local authorities in London and elsewhere.”

That is only part of the story. Dr Keen runs a company, Now Medical  , that sells medical and psychiatric advice (for £35-a-go plus VAT) to housing authorities and associations regarding people seeking priority or specialist housing. Since March 2000 he has also advised the Border Agency on whether people are medically fit to be deported or dispersed within the UK.

In 2006 the then Mr Justice Leveson criticised Dr Keen  and the local authority he was advising over the case of a woman suffering post-traumatic stress disorder following rape, torture and imprisonment in Iran. Dr Keen had not examined the woman and his assessment of her case was, according to Leveson, “irrational” and “tainted”. (Cases involving Dr Keen are gathered here  .)

Back in December, I asked the Home Office how Dr Keen could be considered “independent” from the Border Agency, safeguarding children’s welfare on the Interim Family Returns Panel, when he was already a paid adviser to the Agency, assessing fitness for deportation. The Home Office said:

“We don’t consider that to be a conflict of interest as he acts in an independent capacity in both of these roles as an expert medical adviser.”

Joining Dr Keen as a £200-a-day independent panellist since April is Sir Roger Singleton, chair of another Home Office body, the Independent Safeguarding Authority  , and a former chief executive of Barnardo’s.

The Border Agency trumpeted public approval from Barnardo’s, the “highly respected children’s charity”  when it recast child detention as “family friendly pre-departure accommodation”   in March 2011. Barnardo’s agreed to “provide key welfare, safeguarding and support services for families” at Cedars.

Stung by criticism that Barnardo’s was betraying children by colluding in rather than exposing the government’s rebranding of child detention, chief executive Anne Marie Carrie set out the charity’s self-styled “Red Lines  ” in a speech in July 2011.

Among other commitments, Carrie said Barnardo’s would “speak out” if it had any concerns, or if the level of force used against families was “disproportionate to the family circumstance”.

Using the government’s preferred euphemism for the family detention facility, she added:

“I assure you our involvement in the PDA will not stop us campaigning tirelessly on behalf of asylum seeking families.”

But Barnardo’s presence at Cedars, which opened last August, is no more reassuring than Dr Keen’s presence on the “independent” panel.

The Children’s Society, another leading charity rich in safeguarding expertise, provided welfare services to families locked up at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, but failed to spot multiple flaws in its child safeguarding structure. It was left to the Children’s Commissioner and the Bedfordshire Local Safeguarding Children Board   to expose the safeguarding shambles after discovering that sexually abused child inmates had been deported without proper medical or therapeutic attention.

Nobody should be surprised that the government’s “compassionate approach” is fatally flawed. Real concern for children’s welfare is irreconcilable with locking them up for the sake of administrative convenience.

The Home Affairs Select Committee, whose duties include scrutinising the Border Agency’s work, should expose the sham that is compassionate child detention, and call upon the government to stop detaining children.


* Detention figures: the government’s website is playing up, but Quaker Asylum & Refugee Network has accurate first quarter numbers here  .

Independent Family Returns Panel members announced April 2012

Information from the UK Border Agency:

The panel has an independent chair and a pool of 10 members who have experience of safeguarding and medical expertise.

Chris Spencer (chair), former Director of Children’s Services at Hillingdon borough council. He is also a senior member of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and a trained child psychologist. He has a long association with child welfare issues.

Dr Robin Basu, former Senior Medical Manager and Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in the NHS for 30 years.

Dr Stephanie Green, a Port Medical Officer for the past 10 years at Heathrow airport, advising on the health of new entrants to the UK, including those seeking asylum.

Philip Ishola, former Head of Immigration and Asylum and counter-child-trafficking lead officer at Harrow Children’s Services, and current chair of the London Safeguarding Children Board subgroups on trafficked children and the 2012 Olympics.

Dr John Keen, a GP in Chiswick since 1988. He is also chair of the Research Ethics Committee in both Central London and Brent and Medical Adviser (Housing) to several local authorities in London and elsewhere.

Pauline Newman, former Director of Manchester Social Services and Manchester Children’s Services and former Deputy Director of Birmingham Social Services.

Bernard Phillips, former head teacher of an inner city comprehensive school for 19 years.He has extensive experience in community cohesion work and currently chairs the governing body of a primary school in Oldham.

Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). He has a background in education, children’s services, policy and management and is the former chief executive of Barnardo’s.

Geoff Sloan, recently retired Detective Superintendent with Merseyside police who, as Operations Commander for the Wirral Division, was head of the Family Support Unit and a member of the area’s Child Protection Committee.

Prospera Tedam, a senior lecturer and programme leader for the undergraduate degree in social work at the University of Northampton who previously worked in the private and statutory sectors as a social work practitioner and manager.

Lorna Tull-Griffith, a trainer and consultant who has worked with children and young people for 30 years and was previously a head of service in a large local authority.

Clare Sambrook15 June 2012

About the author

Clare Sambrook  , novelist, journalist, won the 2010 Paul Foot Award and the Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism. Co-Editor of OurKingdom, and co-founder End Child Detention Now.