An asylum detention centre is not properly looking after children, despite being a largely safe environment, the prisons watchdog says.
Oakington: Safe but questions over children's welfare
Prisons inspector Anne Owers said Oakington Immigration Reception Centre had good relations - but concerns remained about children's welfare.
She said one child was detained just before sitting his GCSEs.
The Home Office said the report praised staff at the Cambridgeshire centre who were sensitive of children's needs.
The centre in Longstanton holds asylum seekers whose cases are being "fast-tracked".
Between April and June this year just five of the 1,540 cases assessed were accepted as genuine. The centre is closing in 2006 as new larger asylum reception centres open.
In the June inspection of the centre, Ms Owers' team found it was a largely safe environment characterised by excellent relations between staff and detainees.
But she said procedures for managing more vulnerable detainees and safeguarding children were not "sufficiently robust".
Of the 41 children at the centre, 15 had been held for between one and four weeks. One child had been held for 21 weeks the previous year.
There was no independent social service assessment of children staying longer than a few days, though files showed some children were suffering distress.
Ms Owers said older children were receiving little or no education and there were few opportunities for sports.
"The majority of child protection 'cause for concern' forms were raised because of staff concerns about children's failure to thrive," said Ms Owers.
"The centre made conscientious attempts to identify and support children at risk of harm; but residential staff lacked the necessary qualifications, or support from social services.
"It remains our view that the detention of children should be exceptional, and only for very short periods."
Ms Owers said, however, far higher numbers of detainees said they felt safe in Oakington than at other centres.
"87% of detainees said they felt safe, and 94% said staff treated them with respect - a tribute to the professional and caring work of centre staff. Detainees spent very little time confined to their rooms," she said.
Ms Owers also praised the centre for ensuring the detainees received competent and independent immigration advice.
Minister praises staff
Des Browne, immigration minister, said the report was a tribute to Oakington's staff, and that the immigration service took concerns about children seriously.
"We believe the mechanisms for detaining children and reviewing their detention at Oakington are dealt with sensitively and with priority," he said.
"Family cases are highlighted and prioritised and any children in detention with families are closely monitored.
"We recognise the need to provide a comprehensive programme of activities throughout the day to occupy both adults and children and education classes are now provided for all school age children."
But Sarah Cutler of charity Bail for Immigration Detainees said the government should think again about plans to open a 286-bed family unit at Yarl's Wood detention centre, Bedfordshire.
"The prison inspector's report shows increasing numbers of children are being locked up in an environment where they fail to thrive, where social services are slow to respond to concerns, and where older children in particular are not receiving a full education," said Ms Cutler.
"We are still waiting for the system of welfare assessments at 21 days, promised in December 2003, to be put in place for all detained children."
Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council said detaining children was proven to be potentially damaging to their health.
"We believe that it is not appropriate to detain children, but should the Home Office do so, it must follow all precautions to safeguard that child's health and well-being," she said.