On 10 February 2017 the Home Office announced that security giant G4S is to take over from Barnardo’s in providing welfare for families detained while waiting to be deported. The Home Office contract is initially for 3 years but can be extended to five years.
The Home Office has privately insisted that the much-criticised private security company can provide the “same key aspects of welfare support to families” as have been delivered by the current providers, Barnardo’s.
The decision has led to serious concerns being raised by the former Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, who secured an end to the routine immigration detention of children as part of the coalition government, and says it is “openly putting children at risk”.
The move follows the closure of the Cedars detention centre in December. The purpose-built unit for families with children run by Barnardo’s was opened in 2011 by the coalition government, after the Liberal Democrats argued that children should not be held in penal establishments. Families awaiting removal will now be held at Tinsley House, an adult immigration removal centre near Gatwick, operated by G4S.
When the Home Office first proposed closing Cedars and moving refused asylum seeker families to Tinsley House last year, Barnardo’s told ministers it was not in the best interests of children and they could not support it. It was controversial when Barnardo’s agreed to run Cedars in the first place. The charity, which had campaigned against holding child asylum seekers in detention, said it was only doing so because it believed its presence would help hold the Home Office to its commitment to run a more humane removal system.
A new “discrete self-contained unit” at nearby Tinsley House to handle family deportations is due to open in May.
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The Home Office contract requires G4S to provide support to children and families while they await their removal, to help them to come to terms with the plans for their return and to help them make preparations for their departure and future resettlement.
Clegg said: “The government’s recent disregard for the welfare and safeguarding of vulnerable children is not the Great Britain I know and admire. First they go back on a promise to accept unaccompanied child refugees from Syria and now they are openly putting innocent children at risk.
Charities have been clear that moving families waiting to be deported to Tinsley House is not in the best interests of the children. The truth is, the prison-style environment is not physically safe for children and could impact on their emotional wellbeing. That is exactly why the Liberal Democrats, whilst in coalition, insisted on the establishment of Cedars as suitable accommodation in the first place.”
In a letter seen by the Guardian newspaper flagging up the G4S decision, Home Office minister Susan Williams says that the key aspects of the welfare support provided to families will remain the same despite the change of provider and the change of location.
She insisted that the new pre-departure accommodation at Tinsley House will be used only as a last resort after all voluntary and other return options have failed and an independent family returns panel will be consulted before any family is detained in the unit.
Managing director for G4S custodial and detention services, Jerry Petherick, said: “This announcement is testament to the expertise our team has developed over many years working with families in the days before removal from the UK.”
Tinsley House has history. Back in 2003, when it served as an immigration removal centre for families, it was slammed by the then prisons inspector Anne Owers who said it needed to improve conditions for the diverse and vulnerable group of people in its care. The inspectorate’s report concluded the centre was “not suitable to detain children for more than a few days”.
Tinsley House is designed to hold adults in secure conditions. Take away the name and you could be in any medium-secure prison in the land. It bristles with bolts and bars and uniformed guards, and is as far removed from a child-friendly environment as you could imagine. It is shameful that children, whose parents committed the crime of seeking a better life, will be held there. That their safety and welfare will be in the hands of G4S compounds the disgrace.
The Home Office would doubtless say that if children are to be held in immigration removal centre’s, there is no alternative but to use the private sector. But it is the state making the decision to imprison families awaiting deportation, so it should be the state taking the responsibility of caring for them. The government is abdicating that responsibility and placing it in the hands of a private company that has repeatedly shown itself incapable of delivering the services it promises.
As for the now closed Cedars, it was built with a better world in mind – relatively spacious, with play areas for children, several lounges, a library including immigration law materials, a multifaith prayer room and mosque, computing and internet facilities. Cedars was an acronym for compassion, empathy, dignity, approachability, respect and support. Not words one readily associates with G4S.