by Allegra Stratton for The Guardian

December 1, 2020


Nick Clegg is seeking cabinet approval for his plans to secure an end to the practice of detaining children in immigration removal centres, with government sources suggesting he wants to see no children in detention by the spring.

The deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader will tell the organisation Citizens UK this evening, via a videolink from Kazakhstan where he is representing the UK at a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, that he is near being able to announce the coalition's plans for ending child detention.

It was at a rally held by Citizens UK in the week before the election that both Nick Clegg and David Cameron promised to end child detention. Clegg is under pressure to make a decisive announcement after two deadlines were missed.

The commitment was one of the first made by the coalition after the general election, but last month plans appeared to be delayed. The Home Office departmental business plan published at the beginning of November revealed that the practice of detaining children would not now end before March at the earliest.

Tonight Clegg will promise a timetable before Christmas for ending the practice, but he will say he is unable to announce a final deadline as the policy is wending its way through the cabinet home affairs committee.

He is also said to be limited by the pace of working out humane alternatives to locking up families with children who are liable for removal. A pilot scheme experimenting with means of deporting families with children that do not involve detention does not finish until the end of the year and Clegg is under pressure from the UK Border Agency to prove he has other methods for such deportations.

Nonetheless he will say this evening: "It's a big culture change. One that puts the needs of children before sounding or looking tough on immigration. But it is long overdue. So I can confirm today that the government will be announcing, by Christmas, how we will end the detention of children for immigration purpose – for good."

Sarah Teather, the minister for children and families, will appear in person at the Citizens UK event.

There were 1,085 children detained last year, with more than 100 detained between April and June this year. In July Clegg described it as a "moral outrage". The immigration minister, Damian Green, has pledged to dress up as Father Christmas if children are detained this Christmas in the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire.

A source suggested yesterday that no children would be detained in the centre this Christmas and by the spring none would be held in any centre at all, suggesting the government could opt for a phased ending of the practice between the last week of December and March.

Clegg has reportedly pushed to overcome opposition to the policy from the UK Border Agency and the home secretary, Theresa May. According to government sources, UKBA and May believe the pledge to have been a "foolish commitment". UKBA officials are said to believe the pledge will make it more difficult to deport families with children, thereby defeating their main aim of effective immigration control.

Neil Jameson of Citizens UK said: "[We are] delighted Nick Clegg, on behalf of the coalition government, will be fulfilling the commitment made to us on 3 May before 2,500 of our members that they will end the detention of children and families for immigration purposes. We welcome the clear commitment to resolve the matter by this Christmas and to continue to work with Citizens UK on practical alternatives that put children's needs first. We expect that no child or their family will spend this Christmas or any Christmas in centres like Yarl's Wood again."

Pressure has been mounting on the government, with a high-court challenge to end the practice launched in recent weeks.

In November it was reported that one pilot scheme looking at how to deport failed asylum-seeking families without using detention, which involved voluntary groups working with families in the community to make their own preparations for departure, had resulted in only one family leaving the country.

The Home Office said it hoped the two pilot schemes would be completed by the end of this year.

It has been reported that UKBA officials have also been working on their own way of removing "non-compliant" families without resorting to detention, which was said to involve dawn raids.

A taskforce set up by Citizens UK looking into alternatives will propose changes to the asylum process including early access to legal advice to reduce the numbers forcibly returned, and the application of techniques from the social care sector to improve the handling of families with children.

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