Clegg calls time on child detention

A Lib Dem achievement to celebrate.

As part of David Cameron's "Save Nick" operation, the coalition has brought forward a series of policies designed to stamp the Lib Dems' identity on the government.

We've already been promised a new "crackdown" on tax avoidance and a scholarship fund for poorer students. Today, Clegg will confirm details of the government's plan to end the moral outrage of child detention – one of the Lib Dems' key manifesto promises and a policy we've long argued for through our No Place for Children campaign.

Clegg is due to announce that no children will be detained in asylum centres this Christmas and that the practice, which he described as "state-sponsored cruelty", will end altogether by 12 May – the first anniversary of the coalition agreement.

The accompanying statistics are a grim reminder of Labour's shameful treatment of asylum-seekers. In the party's last term in office, on average, almost seven children a day were locked up; 173 children were detained for longer than a month in the last year alone. In total, 7,075 children were locked up for an average of 13 days.

One study revealed that 65 per cent of children had suffered physically due to their detainment and that more than half had been damaged psychologically, the symptoms including heightened anxiety, loss of bowel control, refusing food and bedwetting.

Clegg will say:

Because our starting point is this: there is no greater test of civilised society than how it treats its children. Today's announcement marks a big culture shift within our immigration system. One that puts our values – the protection of children – above paranoia over our borders. One that prioritises doing the right thing [rather] than looking and sounding tough.

With this in mind, there seems little reason why the coalition should not end child detention immediately. There is every risk that children could still be detained in the window after Christmas and before the formal ban.

Yet this is still a rare example of a genuine Lib Dem achievement and one for which Clegg deserves much credit. There is no doubt that the policy would not have been pursued by a Conservative-only government.

After this Lib Dem success, the scene is now set for a series of policy showdowns over control orders, banking reform, executive pay and an elected House of Lords. If Clegg is to live up to his boast that his party is pushing Tory ministers in a more liberal direction, he will need to prevail in several of these matters.

In an attempt to avoid the "fucking car crash" that David Cameron warned of, the coalition has again delayed a decision on the future of control orders. But the new year will soon pit Clegg against Theresa May and the security establishment.

It is a battle that he must not lose. On this occasion, the alibi of the deficit will not be available to him. Retention of control orders would amount to a fundamental breach of principle.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.