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A fair deal for children

The government claims to be looking into alternatives to detention for minors - but so far its pilot

There has been much discussion about the detention of children since the New Statesman launched its campaign four weeks ago. From the Children's Commissioner to the Home Office, there is widespread acceptance that detention is damaging to minors, but there is little discussion about what should happen instead. Is there a workable alternative to locking up children?

It's a question that has been troubling the government, so much so that the Home Office last year began a pilot scheme to persuade families at the end of the asylum process to return home voluntarily. It makes financial sense to invest in voluntary return: in 2006, a House of Commons committee revealed that it costs on average £9,000 forcibly to remove someone from the UK. But the pilot scheme has been a disaster, with very few families co-operating in their expulsion, and with evidence emerging of the harm and distress caused to the children involved.

The pilot programme took place at Millbank Induction Centre in Ashford, Kent, and ran for ten months from last November. The idea was to house families that had been refused asylum in a hostel where an independent charity, Migrant Helpline, would work with them for a short length of time to help them consider how best to return to their home countries. It differed from conventional detention centres in that the families were free to come and go.

Initially, many charities welcomed the idea. Asylum-seeking families need to feel safe, but are often very fearful at the prospect of returning home; and, having left everything behind, they find it takes a huge change of mindset to consider going back. Children will often have no memory of the country they have left, and their parents find it difficult to imagine how they will survive or what their lives will be like. A good system hinges on trust, and giving families the breathing space to talk through these concerns with someone independent makes sense.

Yet very quickly it became clear that Millbank was not working: after three months, not a single family had entered the hostel, and the referral criteria were so unclear that some of the families eventually sent there could not leave the UK because it had already been judged unsafe for them to return home. Others were taken to the centre straight from detention, and were so damaged by their recent experiences that they were unable or unwilling to trust anybody.

We tracked down some of the families to find out from them, their legal representatives and charity support workers what had gone wrong. The families told us that it was never made clear to them why they were being sent to Millbank: they were simply given 14 days to enter the pilot or have their benefits stopped; some had less than a week to make arrangements and take their children out of school. Some families did not know where they were going until they arrived at Millbank. One mother was taken straight there after several months in Yarl's Wood detention centre; she arrived with her baby, scared and confused, and left the hostel soon afterwards.

Support workers and legal representatives were equally unsure of what was happening, meaning there were few people to give the families informed and impartial advice. In the absence of information, rumours circulated, resulting in a climate of fear. Most of the parents we spoke to had few complaints about the care they received from Migrant Helpline and were grateful their children were allowed to attend school - but it was nevertheless clear they were living in fear and unable to engage with the process. The children, sensitive to the tensions, reacted as they often did to detention - refusing to eat, becoming ill and distressed, and behaving badly at school.

Free to go, many families did just that. Those we spoke to had returned to their original asylum accommodation and enrolled their children back into school, citing the need for normality and stability. The Home Office regards these families as "absconders", even though they had been free to leave Millbank and many had informed the authorities of their location. One family became "absconders" when the officials went to the wrong address to collect them. The Home Office suggests that the number of families which "absconded" proves that detention of children is necessary, but our evaluation shows that this is a myth.

The essential element of any workable, humane system is confidence: without gaining the trust of an asylum-seeking family - and those who support them - there is no meaningful way to explore voluntary return. The government made it clear from the outset that it was not interested in the impact of the pilot on the minors involved; it was concerned with cost and with the number of families leaving the UK.

The merits of trust have been demonstrated by models in other countries, such as the Hotham Mission in Australia. In a two-year pilot, more than 200 asylum-seekers were given an independent charity worker to support them through an asylum process designed to integrate them into the community or help them to return home. Eighty-five per cent of those refused asylum were not detained and returned home voluntarily. None absconded.

Detention is not a sensible policy. The first presumption in any case must be freedom, and any restrictions on liberty must be proportionate: there is no evidence that families, which tend to need access to health, education and social support, abscond if they are released into the community. A study in the UK by South Bank University found that less than 9 per cent of high-risk, single asylum-seekers attempted to evade immigration control after being released on bail. It concluded that the detention of asylum-seekers was largely unnecessary and "a vast waste of public money". It costs the taxpayer £1,280 a week - nearly £67,000 a year - for a single asylum-seeker to be detained, yet virtually nobody is calling the government to account over how the money is spent.

Neither effective nor civilised

Where there is a compelling risk that a family may go missing, the Home Office has a range of measures at its disposal. Families can be asked to post bail or to report on a regular basis to the police or the Home Office. Other methods trialled elsewhere have ranged from the coercive, such as electronic tagging in Florida, to the non-coercive, such as the supervision of asylum-seekers by a charity, in New York, and by social workers, in Sweden. These initiatives confirm that threats and coercion do not encourage families which have already suffered serious upheaval and distress to comply. The schemes that succeed work in a supportive, transparent way, so that the families and their advisers understand the system and can feel confident that they have been given a fair hearing.

Finding a humane and sensible solution requires a significant investment of energy, time and commitment. It will take a brave government to do just that in the face of public concern and misunderstanding about immigration. But there is a precedent. In July, the Australian government ended a seven-year policy of automatic detention of asylum-seekers and pledged that no child would ever again be detained. The Austra lian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, said it was neither "an effective nor a civilised response".

After the failure of Millbank in this country, we need a serious discussion about realistic alternatives. Next month, Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Children's Society will launch an initiative to end the detention of minors within three years. In an effective asylum system, no child need be detained.

Lisa Nandy is policy adviser for asylum and refugee children at the Children's Society

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan, and Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times