Detention of immigrant children to end, says Clegg

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No child will be held in an immigration centre this Christmas and the "shameful" practice will end completely by May, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said today.

The Government will put child protection above paranoia over the UK's borders and close the family wing of Yarl's Wood immigration centre in Bedfordshire immediately, he said.

The key pledge to end the practice of child detention, condemned as a "moral outrage" by Mr Clegg, was one of the first acts of the Government when it came to office, but has been subject to delays.

Mr Clegg said he was "overhauling the whole system" and child detention in immigration cases would end completely by May 11 next year.

The new system, which will include independent family returns panels in the most difficult cases, will allow families to leave "with ease, with dignity and with help to resettle".

But under the measures, children could still be held in independently-run, "pre-departure accommodation" for up to 72 hours as a last resort before their return.

"This is a world away from the old immigration detention centres," Mr Clegg said.

"They will be small and personal for a few families and only used in extreme situations."

The announcement "marks a big culture shift within our immigration system", Mr Clegg said.

"One that puts our values - the protection of children - above paranoia over our borders. One that prioritises doing the right thing rather than looking and sounding tough."

He went on: "We are ending the shameful practice that last year alone saw over 1,000 children - 1,000 innocent children - imprisoned.

"The practice that, under Labour, saw children literally taken from their homes, without warning, and placed behind bars.

"Our reforms will deliver an approach to families that is compassionate and humane, while still maintaining the integrity of our immigration system.

"Because our starting point is this: there is no greater test of civilised society than how it treats its children."

Under the plans, families who have failed in their application to remain in Britain will be taken out of the hands of the Home Office and given to an independent panel of experts.

Families will be offered conferences to discuss their return home, and welfare and medical concerns once the appeals process has been exhausted. Assisted voluntary return packages will also be offered.

Those who refuse the support will be given up to two weeks in which they will be allowed to remain in the community before boarding a flight home.

As a last resort, "ensured returns" - which could involve spending up to 72 hours in pre-departure accommodation - will take place. But it is understood children would still be able to leave the premises, subject to suitable supervision.