Yarl’s Wood immigration centre treated children in a shameful way

It’s clearer than ever that this centre must be closed, says Malcolm Stevens.

A shameful account of institutional incompetence is delivered by a report published this week about Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The treatment of children detained there had already caused the Children’s Commissioner and the Chief Inspector of Prisons to express concern, and now it’s clearer than ever that this centre must be closed.

The report shows the findings of independent investigation by Bedfordshire Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) into sexual activity between unrelated children and other concerns at Yarl’s Wood. Even from the relative safety of an executive summary (as opposed to the full report, which is not published, despite the new Government’s commitment to do so with serious case reviews), it describes a catalogue of safeguarding failures by Bedford Borough Council and Central Bedfordshire Council; by SERCO and SERCO Healthcare; by the Bedfordshire police; and by the UK Border Agency, the Office of its Children’s Champion, its Family Detention Unit, its independent social workers and its contract management team.

It found that the statutory responsibilities of SERCO and the UK Border Agency to exercise safeguarding arrangements were ineffective; none of the agencies gave adequate weight to the particular vulnerability of children in detention; and that ministers were not properly informed. It has called for improvement plans with a series of recommendations for all the agencies, and the LSCB has bravely committed itself to monitoring compliance.

The findings are made all the more poignant, as we now know, by the fact that repeated pleas by the mother of one of the children for independent investigation and specialist medical attention for her child were effectively dismissed by all agencies. In other words, the opportunity for therapeutic attention for her child, and others, was lost in the rush to effect their removal from the country. Just how sad that is, given what is known about the potential consequences of unresolved abusive experiences in early childhood, is clearly not lost in the LSCB’s corporate mind.

For a country which takes pride in safeguarding its children, what has happened is wholly unacceptable. Children must be removed urgently from wherever their safety and welfare is at risk. And this applies equally to children in Yarl’s Wood as it does to children everywhere else.

For this reason, the Government must not delay its promise to close Yarl’s Wood to children. And it must surely reconsider the wisdom of its decision to repeat the error of the previous government in allowing the organisation most culpable – the UK Border Agency – to lead its current review of services for children in detention. From the recommendations of this review, if there is one thing on earth that Border Agency should not do, it is that.

Malcolm Stevens is former lead Children’s Services Inspector with the Government’s Social Services Inspectorate, now Director of Justice Care and advisor to Ian Duncan Smith’s influential Conservative think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice