John McDonnell MP
I will be as brief as I can, Dame Rosie. There is much that I loathe in this Bill, but I will concentrate on children’s detention. I speak in support the amendments tabled in my name, as well as new clause 18. I wish to speak on this issue because I am not sure how many Members have experience of having children locked up in their constituency in the way that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has, and it was the same in my constituency. For some years I was the house father of a small-unit children’s home near Heathrow, and it is important that Members fully understand and appreciate the consequences of their actions in supporting the Bill.
I have two detention centres in my constituency—Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. Prior to 2012, children and their families were detained in Harmondsworth in particular. They were locked in; they were imprisoned. The last report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons described the setting in Harmondsworth as “bleak” and “prisonlike”, and it is. The experience of the regime is harsh. We have had suicides, and we had another death in Colnbrook last Sunday—that has been referred to. At Harmondsworth the place has been burned down during riots, twice.
I visited when the children were there, like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I will tell the story of one of my visits to Harmondsworth, where the children were detained. We had a small classroom to deal with children. They were of primary and secondary age, and it was heart-rending. On one occasion when I visited they had a poetry lesson, and they chose to write a poem on a subject of their choice. One of the young girls wrote on the subject of freedom. She wrote:
“Freedom is the sound outside the gate.”
It broke my heart seeing those children locked up in that way, and all the experts I have spoken to—teachers, child psychologists, doctors—reported the impact that that was having in traumatising those children, often scarring them for life. We also demonstrated time and time again, from the various research reports on the children’s experiences, that they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their experiences in detention exacerbated and piled on top of what many had already experienced in their country of origin which had forced them and their families to flee, and their experiences on the journey here. In one Children’s Society report at the time, the expression “state-sponsored cruelty” was used.
In the children’s home where I was a house father, we dealt with some of the children who had been coming from detention. We understood the traumas they had gone through.
Before 2010, just to remind the House, many of us, on a cross-party basis—Conservative, Labour, Liberals and others—campaigned to end child detention because the numbers were increasing year on year. Once a principle is established, it is interesting how the numbers increase. At one point, there was an estimated 1,000 children and families in Yarl’s Wood. The campaigns made it an issue in the run-up to the 2010 general election and many of us signed a commitment to make this country a place of sanctuary. Thank God, what happened was that the people of this country woke up to what we were doing to children and the way children were being treated. Children’s Society reports evidenced the individual experiences of children, as well as the research. We made the sanctuary pledge. Citizens UK, religious bodies, community groups and trade unions came together in one mass campaign.
We had a huge breakthrough after the election. David Cameron was convinced and was supported by, yes, Nick Clegg and—she is no longer in her place—the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). Over a decade ago, we ended, with unanimity in this House, the routine detention of children. No more children were imprisoned in Harmondsworth in my constituency, or in any other detention centre or prison-like facility. We took that pledge and we enacted it in legislation with cross-party support in 2014. There were some exceptions, obviously. I regretted some of them, but I could understand some reasons why. There were a small number where pre-departure accommodation was provided, but no child was left in a detention centre.
The Bill, whatever the Minister says, removes the protections we, cross-party, arrived at unanimously over a decade ago. My plea to this House is this: please do not take us back to those barbaric days. The lives of children are devastated. The estimate is that 8,000 children face detention under the proposals in the Bill. It will create lasting, almost irrecoverable damage to those children. I just appeal, in all humanity, for the House to reject the proposals.