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What sort of nation goes back to indefinitely detaining children, asks bishop

12 June 2023

Bishop of Southwark fears for ‘state of the nation’s soul’ during Lords migration debate

Parliament TV

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, speaks in the House of Lords on Wednesday evening

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, speaks in the House of Lords on Wednesday evening

PLANS to detain children in immigration removal centres cause bishops to fear for “the state of the nation’s soul”, the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, has said.

He was speaking during a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday night, during the Committee Stage of the Illegal Migration Bill (News, 9 June). During the debate, which went on until 4.15 a.m. on Thursday, Bishop Chessun also voiced concerns about the Bill’s proposals to detain pregnant women.

Bishop Chessun spoke to four amendments on behalf of the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, the lead bishop for refugees, asylum, and migration policy, who was unable to be present.

Bishop Chessun described as “inappropriate” a proposal in the Bill to “restart detaining children, potentially for an unlimited period”. There had been no evidence provided, he said, that detaining children for immigration purposes would “ensure that we do not inadvertently create incentives for people-smugglers to target vulnerable individuals”, as government ministers had claimed.

A previous Conservative government had ended the policy of child detention, he said. “How have we arrived, just ten years later, at the conclusion that the well-being and welfare of children can now be sacrificed in consequence of the need to control migration?”

He continued: “It needs to be said explicitly that the Government will be sanctioning an intolerable level of emotional distress for the most vulnerable children. Understandably, a child will ask themselves, ‘What must be wrong with me to have been subjected to such conditions?’.

“The Prime Minister stated that the Government’s objective behind the Bill is not the detention of children. None the less, that is what the Bill does. Given the Prime Minister’s just objective, why has the 2014 requirement that child detention be for the shortest time possible been expressly removed?”

Bishop Chessun said that he welcomed amendments which had been made to the Bill made in the House of Commons, but said that they did not go far enough. “Legislating for the option to place limits on detention and for these limits not to be specified in the Bill is simply not adequate,” he said. “It is an area that cannot remain entirely at the discretion of a Secretary of State, and children must have a means of challenging the lawfulness of a decision. . .

“Children will be detained after they have fled unimaginable horrors at home or been trafficked against their will. Children will be born in detention and others will have their futures shaped by it. It is the hope on these Benches that we are better than this and know what is right, having banished this immoral practice before. It will take real courageous leadership to change course, but we must. There is concern among my brother and sister bishops about the state of the nation’s soul if we tread so easily down this path.”

Lord Murray of Blidworth, responding for the Government, acknowledged that the Bill would introduce detention powers that were not time-limited. “However, in line with our other existing immigration detention powers, detention will be limited to a period of time that is reasonably necessary for the statutory purpose to be carried out,” he said.

Bishop Chessun also spoke to two amendments moved by Baroness Lister of Burtersett, which had been supported by the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek.

The first amendment — to restrict the detention of pregnant women to 72 hours, extendable up to a week with ministerial authorisation — “simply asks that the Government maintain the status quo”, Bishop Chessun said. The 2016 Immigration Act, which placed a 72-hour time limit on pregnant women’s detention, “saw the numbers detained drop from 99 in 2014 to just seven in 2021”.

The consequences of removing the time limit would be “disturbing”, he said. He quoted a report by Women for Refugee Women, which said: “Women seeking asylum who are pregnant are an extremely vulnerable group. Many have experienced trauma such as rape, trafficking, and torture, and have significant physical and mental-health issues.”

The Government should also consider the well-being of unborn children, Bishop Chessun argued. He quoted the Royal College of Midwives: “The detention of pregnant asylum-seekers increases the likelihood of stress, which can risk the health of the unborn baby.”

The second amendment moved by Baroness Lister sought to protect children and pregnant women in detention centres against the use of force. To suggest using force against either pregnant women or children was “unspeakable”, Bishop Chessun said. He drew attention to comments made by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, that there “is no safe way to use force against a pregnant woman, and to initiate it for the purpose of removal is to take an unacceptable risk”.

Shortly after 2.15 a.m., Bishop Chessun spoke to another amendment, which had been tabled by Bishop Butler, who was “unable to be here at this early hour”.

The amendment addressed the clinical screening of people at risk of harm in detention centres, which health-care professionals are able to report to the Home Office. The amendment sought to ensure that this “does not become inconsequential by preventing the necessary legal oversight of detention decisions”, Bishop Chessun said.

It was current Home Office policy “not to routinely detain highly vulnerable people, including those with pre-existing mental illnesses and survivors of torture”. But the Bill refused to allow those who had been detained to challenge their detention by way of judicial review during the first 28 days, which meant that “there is no longer a clear presumption that the vulnerable will not be detained.”

He continued: “Judicial review is a key mechanism to challenge the tension where professional evidence of medical harm is believed to have been given insufficient weight. In this situation, without recourse to the courts, a vulnerable person would be at risk of clinical harm from continuing detention.”

Responding for the Government, Lord Murray of Blidworth said that “the policy on adults at risk in immigration detention, in an updated form, will continue to apply where detention decisions are made for those in the scope of the Bill, including where a medical report has been provided.

“In accordance with the policy, vulnerable people will be detained only where the evidence of vulnerability in their case is outweighed by immigration considerations. I assure the Rt Revd prelate that this balancing process will not change as a result of the Bill.”

Lords Spiritual are due to table further amendments to the Bill when the Committee Stage resumes on Monday, and on Wednesday.

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