Is the coalition reneging on its promise to end child detention?

Damian Green appears to water down the pledge, saying that child detention will be “minimised”.

It seems that the coalition government is watering down its pledge to end the detention of children in UK immigration centres.

As the Guardian reports, the immigration minister Damian Green said, in response to a question about the long-term future of the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire:

At the moment, we are looking at alternatives to detention for children . . . It is our intention to minimise the detention of children in the future as a whole.

One thousand children were detained in the UK last year while their families awaited removal. In a speech in June, Nick Clegg condemned the practice as "state-sponsored cruelty" and a "moral outrage", saying that we need to "restore a sense of decency and liberty to the way we conduct ourselves".

The inclusion of the policy in the coalition agreement was seen as a big concession to the Liberal Democrats, particularly given the generally anti-immigration stance of the Conservatives (as I noted during the election campaign, David Cameron persistently conflated illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers during the leadership debates). If the policy were to be watered down, that could pose significant problems within the coalition.

Green later said that the policy of ending child detention "remains". A Home Office statement confirmed this, saying:

Significant progress has been made in working towards the commitment to end child detention for immigration purposes and we are currently piloting some proposed changes to our approach developed with partners.

What form these methods might take is another contentious area. It was revealed last month that one way of ending child detention would be speeded-up deportation -- a strategy hardly in keeping with minimising the impact on the child.

Immigration detention is intensely traumatising, even for adults: many of these people are asylum-seekers fleeing conflict or torture, and are suffering from post-traumatic stress that is aggravated when they are locked up like criminals. For a child, the impact can be hugely damaging.

A report this month by Medical Justice lays bare the psychological effects this can have on children. It makes for difficult reading: the children surveyed display symptoms from bed-wetting and persistent crying to self-harm. It is imperative that the government stick to its word, and take steps to end this brutal practice as soon as possible, not just "minimise" it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.