A Stitch In Time…

1 11 2008
Whereby I can tell you, finally, and thankfully, that the Home Office have seen sense and apologised over the Baby C farrago.
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Or to be precise, Jeremy Oppenheim, the outgoing Children’s Champion to the Home Office, has stated that what happened with Baby C wasn’t acceptable. In his own words…
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Your first concern is that no infant should be deprived of food for 14 hours and particularly not while in an Immigration Removal Centre. Further you believe that more could and should have been done to ensure that the necessary formula did not run out and more effort should have been made to obtain new supplies promptly when it did. I can confirm in writing as I did at our meeting that I agree with you on all of these points.
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If that sounds a little sticky, and not-quite-an-apology, I’d advise you to go read the full text of his letter. It’s a long and detailed response, taking time and effort to meticulously document the objections that myself and Alison Blenkinsop have raised with the Home Office, time and again, since this debacle erupted. It also documents the struggle everyone has undertaken in getting this issue dealt with, and it acknowledges the effort that was made by all of us. and by all of us, I mean you to, as the contacting and re-contacting of MPs over this, was clearly of real importance in getting this result.
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Since the event occurred you have spent considerable time writing to and telephoning the agency about your concerns. You did not receive a response that satisfied you. You approached Members of Parliament who wrote on your behalf. The responses they received did not reassure you. You met Yarls Wood staff together with Morgan Gallagher. At that meeting you thought that the staff minimised your concerns regarding the lack of necessary food for the infant. They therefore could not reassure you that a similar incident would not occur again. Following this meeting there were further delays before your meeting with me.
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The letter is addressed to Alison Blenkinsop, and I’ll explain a little about that. This sequence is important, if you want to get an understanding of how, and why, these things both happen with UK Gov, and aren’t then actioned upon. So pay attention. ๐Ÿ™‚ The devil is in the detail…
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When both Alison and I became aware that the Home Office had been sending letters out to MPs, reassuring them that the situation was under control, and naming Alison personally, in her role as a member of the Lactation Consultants of Great Britain.. and stating she and Brian Pollett and Jeremy Oppenheim were to have a meeting.. a meeting that had never been arranged, or spoken about… she contacted Meg Hillier at the Home Office, and asked for an explanation. Why was her name in this letter sent to MPs, and why were MPs being informed of a meeting that didn’t exist?
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Meg Hillier never responded. Jeremy Oppenheim’s office, did, several days later. Only to Alison, not to myself. It was a request for a meeting. By this time, we’d discovered that two versions of the “everything is under control” letter had been going out to MPs, from two different people at the Home Office. The text had been copied and pasted from one letter to the other. And had been sent out over a span of several weeks, to different MPs who had written requesting an answer to the issue of Baby C going unfed.
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Alison responded to this request, by demanding that it was clear upfront, what was going to be discussed. After the horrendous meeting at Yarl’s Wood we’d both attended in early September (that we were forbidden from quoting) neither she, nor I, were prepared to attend more of the same, without reassurances.
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Answer came there none.
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Several days passed. Alison again contacted Meg Hillier’s office, and requested clarification.
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Answer came there none.
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Last week, she got a phone call from Jeremy Oppenheim, who is leaving office to take up a new role in the Government, stating he was in her area and could she attend a meeting that afternoon? Alison agreed, and off she went.
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I wasn’t at the meeting, but Alison felt it went very well, and fed back elements to me, and stated that Jeremy Oppenheim had promised the same in writing. Which duly arrived on Friday, and is the letter above.
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So if the letter looks ungainly, and super step-by-step detailed, I’d reassure you that it is in order to reflect the torturous path we’ve taken, to get to this point.
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Importantly, it acknowledges what we’ve all been so incensed about. Not so much the dire mistakes that led to the baby going hungry, but to the complete and utter refusal by the Home Office, that there was anything wrong with this. And their complete refusal to listen to all of us, when we said time and again, that this wasn’t acceptable. Oppenheim is extremely clear on this:
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You are also concerned that our responses to you and your colleagues were unnecessarily delayed and defensive. It would have been a relief to you and your colleague if you had known the steps that the agency was actually taking in response to this incident. You also believe that an earlier meeting with a sufficiently senior member of the Agency would have ensured that the replies to the letters sent on your behalf by Members of Parliament were more helpful. Again I can confirm as I said at our meeting that delays should not have occurred and that the Agency needs to be more welcoming of well meant criticism from professionals concerned for the welfare of children. I apologise on behalf of the Agency for the delay and personally for the fact that I did not meet with you much earlier.
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That earlier meeting was a complete stonewall. I never reported it, as it was pointless. No one had agreed to my even mentioning who was present, and no single quote was ever agreed. I was personally attacked, several times, and accused of breaches of confidence with mothers and babies I have supported. Thankfully, I have always obtained signed consent forms for every aspect of support and publicity we give via Nursing Matters and I was able to refute those allegations. Further, we are still in contact with every mother and baby we have ever helped and can ask them to testify to this. We continue to support most of them to this day.
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There were 2 of us – myself and Alison, and 7 senior managers from the Home Office and Serco. Their tone was one of complete defensiveness; there was nothing to answer for apart from a delay in getting in the formula. It is of note that Oppenheim has both accepted, and apologised for this, and stated very clearly that the Home Office needs to be more welcoming of well meant criticism from professionals concerned for the welfare of children. I suspect this is a powerful message, in the world of UK politics, especially within the Home Office. Those of you who have continued to engage with your own MPs over this matter, might want to consider sending them a note, containing this quote from Oppenheim, and the URL for the full letter.
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Especially if you got a “Quite all right dear, there’s nothing to worry about, I’m sure it’s all as it should be.” response from your MP. Those MPs need to hear these words far more than the ones who responded “I’m shocked and will be following this up.”
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Because, intrinsically, those “there there dearie, there’s no problem” MPs are part of this problem.
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Part of the complacency that allowed the senior Home Office managers in that meeting in September, to sit and stonewall us, and accuse us of wrongdoing, whilst they carried on maintaining it was perfectly acceptable not to feed a three month old baby.
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Part of the complacency that allows senior civil servants and contractors for the Government, to act completely outrageously (3rd paragraph).
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So where does this letter leave us? Well, it does stop short of a complete apology to Baby C and her mother. As such.. well, this letter isn’t designed for that. I do know Alison did request that a letter of apology should be sent direct to the family, and I do have some confidence this will happen. I’ll update at the bottom of this post, if, and when, it does.
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Aside from that, I am very happy with this letter. I am very happy with the acknowledgement of the incident, that the Children’s Champion at the Home Office agrees with our complaints that it should never have been allowed to happen, and that the delays and refusing to listen should not have occurred. The whole stitch in time tone sits well with me. Brian Pollett was informed by me, personally in email, that evening, before Baby C ever got hungry, about what had happened. Senior management at Serco have stated that they knew about the situation within minutes of my first phone call to Yarl’s Wood, so they did have time to act before Baby C became distressed. Her mother, of course, was already in a state of extreme anxiety. If they’d acted then, and just gone to Bedford Hospital, or sent baby there with her Mum, she’d never have gone hungry in the first place.
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Likewise, if they’d just accepted they got it wrong after they didn’t feed her, the past four months of struggle could have been avoided. So there was a stitch missed, that caused a huge tear in the public’s confidence in the care of babies in detention. This letter does lay this out, and address that, competently and clearly.
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However.
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Well… you know.. much as I like this letter. Most of that is just sheer relief that someone is listening. I’m totally on board with this letter, and the meeting that took place. I feel it is an honourable letter, and one that should be applauded. Well Done! round of applause
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However.
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Whilst, in itself, it’s a good letter… well, there’s a lot still missing in this situation, isn’t there? Oppenehim says that he should have been in touch earlier… why wasn’t he? We’ve made a huge fuss over this affair, we mothers. We’ve blogged, written to MPs, complained, passed on details to journalists and had major television news coverage of the incident. His office, which I can’t find a URL for, or any meaningful link to, has never responded. I’ve been supporting mothers and babies in Yarl’s Wood for over eighteen months, and have never had any sense or suggestion from anyone that the pathway of progress led to the door of the Children’s Champion Office. It was not mentioned at the meeting in Yarl’s Wood. I’ve emailed literally dozens of officials and MPs and civil servants over alleged mistreatment, and actual mistreatment, of babies and children in the detention system, and contact with this office has never occurred. If you engine search, you get a plethora of hits on documents, debates, meetings and fervent activity. But no contact point, no explaining what this office does, how it can be approached, and how it deals with complaints about children’s treatment in the detention system.
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There doesn’t appear to be a direct, transparent and accountable procedure set up, for this office, that enables individuals to contact them directly? No sense of what it does and how it acts?
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One wonders if this office only became aware of the situation after MPs had been misinformed of their involvement?
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One wonder where this office has been over the past few years as stories of the systemic mistreatment of children detained in Yarl’s Wood have become more and more public?
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Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning Mr Oppenheim’s, or his office’s integrity. I have never met him, know nothing of his work, but for what I’ve encountered in the past few days. And I am greatly impressed by that contact, and am saying so up front. What I am questioning, is the process by which we’ve ended up here. A huge Government funded and directed operation, working from within the Home Office, that is locking up babies and children in secure units for months at a time, and refusing to accept that not feeding a baby was A Big Deal. That’s what I’m questioning here.
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And part of that questioning, is centred upon the letter. Oppenheim makes the following statement:
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You are now aware that the Agency has arranged for the full time presence of Bedfordshire social workers at the centre who have an independent oversight of childrenโ€™s welfare. They can be contacted at the centre during office hours.
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Which sounds really good, doesn’t it? I’m sure some of you reading it, nodded your head and thought “Good, that will help.” Well, I have to report… Bedfordshire Social Services have had an office in Yarl’s Wood for months, if not years. There is a Social Services worker assigned there. And that social worker office was contacted, directly, the day Baby C was going hungry. And the social worker who answered the phone, initially went “Oh that’s terrible, I’ll go see.” and returned with “There is no problem, thank you for your concern.”
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So comments about liaising with Social Workers to ensure protection… do not ring true. How can a single social worker, stand against the might of the Home Office senior managers based in Yarl’s Wood? The social work department were part of the stonewall and silence on the baby going hungry. They were complicit in not seeing this as a big deal, as that’s what they’d been told by senior civil servants and managers in situ.
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Further, it’s not as if we haven’t been here before. Reports on babies and children suffering harm in Yarl’s Wood have been made public for years. The Home Office have always blamed such incidents on the contract providers, and have changed them to new contractors when contracts are due for renewal. They then state it was a mistake and it ‘won’t happen again’. Always, in these stories, is a sense that the Home Office are refusing to take responsibility for the problems – it’s not their fault…
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In 2005, Baby D was released from detention in Yarl’s Wood suffering from rickets and anemia. The mother engaged a lawyer, who sued on behalf of the baby, on the basis of unlawful detention and that the lack of care of the baby, was a breach of the baby’s human rights. The Home Office stated that it wasn’t reasonable to expect them to be held responsible for the baby developing rickets and anemia, as it was the responsibility of the contractor providing medical care to ensure the health of detainees. The judge disagreed:
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Case No: CO/9745/2005 THE HONOURABLE MR JUSTICE WYN WILLIAMS : [2007] EWHC 1654
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The Defendant in this case was the Secretary of State for the Home Department. The Home Office.
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So the ruling is clear – that the medical care of detainees is the responsibility of the UK Government, who detain the babies, and employs and supervises the private company who provides medical care in the compounds.
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The contractors change. The problems continue. Who is responsible for that?
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If you look at the report of Yarl’s Wood staff acting illegally this past week, you’ll find the same argument:
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Officials tell us these were isolated incidents and that a contractor is culpable
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How can a contractor – Serco in recent times, but others have held this dubious ‘honour’ in past years – be culpable in an institution that is overseen by the Home Office? Surely the Home Office are the ones in charge? They write the contract? They pay the contractors? Senior managers and civil servants for the Home Office, sit in Yarl’s Wood itself, running it! They’re not on a phone line in London – they have their offices in Yarl’s Wood, side by side with the ‘contractor’s management.
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But they aren’t reponsible?
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Hmmm… I’ll leave you to make your mind up on that.
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But before I go… an explanantion for those of you who might be a bit confused about my comments on the role of ‘Children’s Champion’.
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Because I suspect some of you read the statement “Children’s Champion for the Home Office” and think “Oh, that’s the Children’s Commisioner, he’s spoken out about Yarl’s Wood and children before.” Yes, he has – but these are two different roles, and two different people.
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Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, is Children’s Commssioner for England. It’s an independent post, and he and his office are charged with looking into, and reporting upon, the lives of children in England. There are other Children’s Commisioners around the UK.
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Jeremy Oppenheim has just left post, as Children’s Champion within the Home Office itself. As I said, I can’t find any URLs that explain this position clearly – if you do, let me know. ๐Ÿ™‚
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Al Aynsley-Green’s department have already reported on the treatment of detained babies and children. He’s about to publish a new report, sometime this month. It will be interesting to see if the defence outlined above… that a contractor is culpable.. reappears in its wake.
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The Home Office. Paid for by you. Its leaders voted for, by you. Acting in your name.
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At last someone at the Home Office, has been listening. So, once again, great news that Oppenheim has written this letter and broken through this stonewalling. ๐Ÿ™‚ Gold Star on the report card for Jeremy.
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However, could do better scrawled across the Home Office report card… especially the Home Office managers in Yarl’s Wood itself. I suspect Serco’s report card will soon show they’ve been expelled… or at very least are up in front of the headmaster for a severe ticking off. (After all, rumours abound that the Serco employed head of medical services at Yarl’s Wood, when Baby C went hungry, has subsequently been sacked.)
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And a heads up to the rest of you. When this new report from the Children’s Commissioner is published… keep you eye out for comments that any problems are the responsibility of the ‘contractor’, Serco. I guarentee you’ll see them!
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But I’ll end this post on a happy note! Yaaaay! Yaaay for mothers! Yaaay for MPs who wouldn’t sit back and accept the first response! Yaaay for fighting back! Yaaay for letter writing and constituents taking the lead!
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Yaaay us! ๐Ÿ™‚
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3 responses

2 11 2008
RoseRedHoofbeats

I couldn’t even follow most of that. Don’t try. I’m just glad there was some form of resolution. I hope it never happens again, and if it does, rest assured I’ll help anyway I can from waaaay over here. =)

2 11 2008
Morgan

I just hate smart women, pretending they’re not smart! ๐Ÿ™‚ Many thanks for your help.. for everyone’s help. It’s just magic that Mums across the Atlantic, the Pacific.. everywhere, jump in and help when babies are threatened.When the hand that rocks the cradle, rocks the boat! ๐Ÿ™‚

3 11 2008
RM

I am pleased – I like that highlighted paragraph – about criticism from those concerned for the well-being of children. You go Morgan!!!!

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