The practice of locking up immigrant children ahead of their deportation from Britain will end within months, Nick Clegg will promise today.
The Deputy Prime Minister will also announce that the controversial family wing of Yarl's Wood immigration centre, Bedford, will close immediately. Liberal Democrats will be keen to point to the moves as evidence of the influence the party is wielding within the Coalition Government. In opposition, Mr Clegg denounced as "state-sponsored cruelty" the detention of child asylum-seekers, some of whom spend months behind bars as plans to remove them from the country are finalised. The Coalition has been criticised for not enacting its promise to end child detention sooner.
Mr Clegg will today pledge that the Government will make the immigration system more family-friendly by banning the detention of youngsters. Mr Clegg will announce that the future of asylum-seeking families will be taken out of the hands of the Home Office and passed to independent experts.
Families will be offered help to return home voluntarily, and if they refuse, they will face enforced repatriation. Others will be allowed to remain in the community on the basis they could be removed from the country at two weeks' notice. As a last resort, families judged at risk of absconding will be housed in accommodation likely to be run by charities.
The detention of children in the Tinsley House immigration removal centre at Gatwick Airport will end.
Liberal Democrat sources said last night that no child is currently in an immigration detention centre – and promised that none will be in custody at Christmas. The party included a commitment to stop youngsters from being locked up in its manifesto and the coalition agreement promised: "We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes."
Between 2005 and 2010, just over 7,000 children were locked up pending their removal from Britain, facing an average time of 13 days in detention.
Mr Clegg will today describe as "shameful" the detention in 2009-10 of 1,065 children – of whom 173 were locked up for more than a month. He will say that "children were literally taken from their homes, without warning, and placed behind bars". He will also declare: "Our starting point is this: there is no greater test of civilised society than how it treats its children."
The Deputy Prime Minister will say he is committed to an immigration system that "puts our values – the protection of children – above paranoia over our borders, one that prioritises doing the right thing over looking and sounding tough".
A report by the Inspectorate of Prisons into Yarl's Wood in 2008 found inadequate education facilities and that staff were failing to monitor the length of children's detention. It also discovered that some families were being transported to and from the centre in caged vans and that even disabled children were being locked up.
Last year the Royal Colleges of Paediatricians, General Practitioners and Psychiatrists warned that removal centres damaged the mental and physical health of their young inmates.
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