The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has apologised for holding an 11-year-old girl in an immigration removal centre on Christmas Day in defiance of a pledge by the Coalition Government to end such cases. The child was detained overnight with her mother and adult sister at Tinsley House near Gatwick Airport after being refused admission to Britain. They were deported on Boxing Day.
The incident, disclosed to The Independent, has infuriated ministers because they had promised to end child detention for immigration purposes by Christmas. On 7 January, Nick Clegg said in a speech: "We made sure that, by our first Christmas in office, not a single innocent child was under lock and key. In Labour's last year alone over 1,000 innocent children were locked up for immigration purposes. We have drawn a line under that scandal."
Attacking the previous Government's record on civil liberties, he said Labour had made Britain "a place where young, innocent children caught up in the immigration system were placed behind bars".
The Deputy Prime Minister's statement had been approved in advance by UKBA. But he has now been told the agency was wrong to do so because of the case at Gatwick, which came to light at the end of last month when its statistics were "reconciled".
Jonathan Sedgwick, UKBA's acting chief executive, has told Mr Clegg in a letter: "UK Border Agency officials had cleared this [statement] beforehand without being aware of the discrepancy. I apologise for this error."
A source close to Mr Clegg said last night: "Nick was absolutely furious when he found out about this. I'm sure this was an honest mistake but if the public are to have confidence in our new system, then we have to get these things exactly right. The commitment to ending child detention is one that Liberal Democrats are rightly proud of."
A Government source confirmed: "A family with one child was intercepted at Gatwick Airport on 25 December and refused entry. In accordance with the published policy for border cases, the family was admitted to Tinsley House overnight while return flights were arranged for the following day. The family was held for less than 24 hours. UKBA has apologised for this error and revised our procedures to ensure this does not occur again and to ensure that border cases are clearly flagged."
The Government has not disclosed the family's nationality. No ministerial authorisation was given to hold the mother and her two daughters. Ministers have made a distinction between holding children in detention centres such Yarl's Wood, Bedfordshire, and border cases. Yarl's Wood was closed to families with children on 16 December, and no children were held or admitted to the centre on Christmas Day.
UKBA was set up after Lord (John) Reid, the then Home Secretary, described the Home Office as "not fit for purpose" in 2006 after a row over the release of foreign prisoners.
The latest incident was revealed amid heated discussions between Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers over whether prisoners should be given the vote in general elections, in line with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.
The Government has proposed allowing inmates serving sentences of up to four years to vote but that is likely to be defeated in the Commons next week. Tory MPs, who oppose the move, have been given a free vote.
Yesterday Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, upset some Tories by saying the Government had to comply with the ruling. He said: "I hope it will take on board that we do have the rule of law here... Nobody wants to give large numbers of prisoners the vote so we will do the minimum necessary to avoid further chaos."