By Ian Dunt
Campaigners are seizing on a test case on child detention before the high court today, as observers start to lose faith in the government's promise to end the practice.
The ending of child detention in immigration cases was a key plank of the coalition agreement, but the review into the policy - which was supposed to conclude in July - has failed to report back, leading to fears that work in the area has stalled.
The case of Suppiah and others v secretary of state for the Home Department concerns two mothers and their children, who were detained earlier this year after a dawn raid on their homes.
Liberty and Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD) are intervening in the case to present evidence that the experiences of the families are typical of broad systemic failings in the system and that the detention of children in immigration detention centres is itself unlawful.
"The deputy prime minister has said immigration detention of children is 'a moral outrage' which must end - yet the UK Borders Agency is still locking kids up," Emma Norton, Liberty's legal officer, said.
"This has gone on too long and we look to the courts to put an end to it this week. Prison is no place for a child and defending such an unsavoury position is no place for the new government."
The Home Office insisted the review was going according to schedule and that the detention of families was being minimised while it looked at the issue.
"Through a comprehensive review, the government is focused on finding an alternative to detention that protects the welfare of children, without undermining immigration law," a spokesperson said.
"The detention of families will be kept to a minimum until the review is completed."
It continued: "The government is fighting this court case and remains committed to the removal of those found by the courts to have no right to remain in the UK. The ability to enforce removals when necessary is a key part of a sustainable immigration system."
Activists have long argued that the process by which children are detained, and the detention itself, can cause severe psychological harm. They are often woken in a dramatic dawn raid and then bundled into the back of a van for a journey of several hours, while seeing their parents in huge distress.
According to Liberty, 1065 children were held in immigration detention in 2009 alone. One child was held for 158 days.
Government policy was changed to allow the detention of children in 2001, when the UK Border Agency (UKBA) was authorised to treat accompanied children according to the same criteria as adults.