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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I am a little disappointed that the Minister is not willing to look a little more favourably on the amendment, especially in view of the widespread view in this House that, although our practice is good, it would be even better were it enshrined in statute. Clearly, I shall withdraw the amendment, but I hope that the noble Baroness will be willing to consider

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the matter a little further. We shall return to this matter on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness David moved Amendment No. 50:

After Clause 3, insert the following new clause--

Referral of children to Panel of Advisors

(". Where a person is, or appears to be, or alleges that he is, under the age of 18 years and expresses a fear of return to his country of origin, it shall be the duty of those statutory services who are aware of his circumstances to refer him to the Refugee Council Panel of Advisors for Unaccompanied Refugee Children, unless the child objects to such a referral.").

The noble Baroness said: The amendment stands in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton. It would ensure that all statutory authorities that became aware of the circumstances of an unaccompanied refugee minor would have a duty to refer that child to the Refugee Council's panel of advisers for unaccompanied refugee children.

We are still dealing with children but also with a new point. On the last amendment, I explained about setting up the panel of advisers and how it was agreed. In fact it opened in 1994. Since then it has received just over 1,000 referrals. Currently, it is headed by a co-ordinator who runs a team of 29 advisers. Last year, the National Institute of Social Work conducted an evaluation of the panel and found that it met all its stated objectives. The Home Office has agreed funding. Indeed, it has increased the funding. Local authorities agree that the panel has been a help to them in their work, and more importantly, refugee children have found that there is someone at hand to help them through a bewildering asylum process and ensure access to those services to which they are entitled. In short, the panel has been a success.

The majority of cases are referred to the panel by the Immigration Nationality Department of the Home Office. There have, however, been many cases where a child who had entered the UK has not been immediately or promptly referred to the panel. That may be because he (or she) has not claimed asylum, even though the child fears to return to its country. In such cases, a child may enter the country without claiming asylum and may subsequently be referred to a social services department as being unaccompanied and without a carer; or it may come to the attention of social services or the local education authority that a child unaccompanied by its parents is being cared for in an informal arrangement with members of the child's community.

Social services departments may be more concerned with providing care to a child than sorting out the child's immigration status, which may be a lengthy process and will depend on gaining the trust of the child, who will have to explain how it reached the UK, its reasons for travelling and how long it had been here when the social services department intervened. It is important, though, that children who are in fear of returning home should make a prompt application for asylum and should benefit from the Refugee Council's expertise and an independent adviser's support in the process right from the start. The amendment seeks to ensure that that is

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the case by ensuring that all such children are promptly referred to the panel, regardless of the point at which they claim asylum.

I have a number of examples--not referred to before--bearing out my argument. I will just state one. A 16 year-old boy from Zaire was referred to the panel in January 1996, though he arrived in the UK in 1994. He had been looked after by a local authority and was placed with foster parents. At the time of referral his immigration status was unclear; indeed, the reason for referral was to seek the assistance of the panel in establishing his status. The adviser arranged legal representation and accompanied the young man to the Home Office so that the question of his status could be resolved. He further liaised with the social services department so that he could be referred for some much needed counselling.

That case outlines just one example where the panel received referrals. It is anxious to help with the difficulties because we do not want children remaining illegally. They may have come as a visitor and over-stayed, but they are therefore here illegally and it is important that someone helps them properly to establish their status. The amendment is simple and would probably not involve many children. It would be a great help and the panel is keen for the amendment to be accepted. I hope it will be. I beg to move.

Lord Henderson of Brompton: Perhaps I may say a few words in support of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady David. I would have thought that the Government could accept this amendment. I hope that I can have the attention of the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: I apologise to the noble Lord, but I have been concentrating extremely hard on this Bill and every now and again I have to confer with my Whip for information. I hope the noble Lord will forgive me for that.

Lord Henderson of Brompton: Of course I accept the graceful explanation of the noble Baroness--but she is again talking to her noble friend instead of listening to me while I make a few points.

All I wish to say is that the noble Baroness, Lady David, expressed the view of the panel that the reference to the Refugee Council panel of advisers should be as early as possible. The panel has many examples. The noble Baroness gave one. It is too late at night for me to give others. But there is no doubt that the panel is working extremely well. It would work much better if there was a statutory requirement for reference to it of appropriate children to be made early. That is all there is to it. I hope that the noble Baroness will look at the amendment sympathetically.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I add my support to the amendment. Clearly the panel of advisers which was established during the passage of the 1993 Bill has proved a great success. It met all its stated objectives, as the noble Baroness, Lady David, said. Funding has been agreed for it; local authorities agree that it has been

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a help to them, and refugee children themselves find that there is someone at hand to help them through this bewildering process.

There have been cases--indeed, a good many--where children have entered this country but have not been promptly or immediately referred to the panel. That creates difficulties. They may be referred to a social services department which will be more concerned with providing care than with sorting out the immigration status. It is important that the children should have access to the panel of advisers, which has proved itself so well. I hope therefore that the noble Baroness will give favourable consideration to the amendment.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: This appears to me to be precisely the kind of amendment that the Government may feel able to accept. It does not raise questions about bogus applications or about methods of getting around procedures. It is simply an extremely helpful proposal to refer young people to this expert council of advisers. I hope that the Government, who have so far been reluctant to accept amendments, at least on the occasion of today's Committee sitting, will consider doing so.

The amendment would relieve some of the burden of work on the immigration department. It would enable the Refugee Council panel of advisers to make its own judgments about the child and how much he or she might be at risk, and, indeed, perhaps about the precise age of the child. However, the crucial point is that the child would have people to whom he could turn, people whom he could learn to trust and people whose job it would be to try to assist him to resettle in this country, if that were the ultimate outcome of the case. I wonder whether the Minister might not consider accepting what seems to be a wholly helpful amendment and not one that constitutes any clash of ideology or principle.

Lord Hylton: In replying to an earlier amendment the noble Baroness the Minister took exception to the words,

    "expresses a fear of return".

One understands her reason for doing so in that she thought that in the context of previous amendments this was too wide. I do not think that objection can be made in the case of this amendment. I say that because, being in a strange country, a child may easily have genuine fears of all kinds. It is such fears that can best be dealt with through the help of the panel of advisers.

I say in passing about the panel that it fulfils the kind of role that is fulfilled in this country in respect of British children by people like the amici curiae or the Official Solicitor. Therefore, the panel of advisers is extremely valuable in ensuring that the child's state of mind and all his personal details are dealt with in an appropriate manner. I hope that the amendment will commend itself to the Government.

11.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I am again somewhat perplexed by the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady David. I hope that she will write to me with details of it. She

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said that the child arrived in 1994 and was not referred until 1996. If that is the case, did he arrive as an asylum applicant in 1994? Were the authorities aware of him in 1994 as an applicant for asylum? If that is the case, I am quite puzzled, because my understanding is that child applicants are dealt with almost within hours of arrival. I find it very strange that someone has been in the country for two years without being referred. I would ask the noble Baroness to write to me with details of the case to which she has just referred.

The panel of advisers is a non-statutory body administered by the Refugee Council. The advisers act as friends to unaccompanied children seeking asylum and assist them in their dealings with the Home Office, social services and other agencies. In the last financial year the panel dealt with around 700 children. The panel is valued by all those working with unaccompanied children and has proved to be another positive development in this sensitive area.

Amendment No. 50, as drafted, would extend the services of the panel to children who were here with their families. That is neither necessary nor appropriate. The purpose of having a panel of advisers is to offer help to children who do not have relatives or guardians who can look after their interests. It is entirely right that a child who is with relatives should look to his or her own family for assistance.

The amendment would also place a statutory duty on all the agencies dealing with a child to refer him to the panel. A child asylum seeker is likely to have dealings with several different agencies; for example, education services, health services and, if the child is unaccompanied, social services. It would be unnecessarily complicated and burdensome to require all these bodies to refer a child to the panel. Well over half of all referrals are made in the first instance by the Immigration Service or the Asylum Directorate. That is done extremely speedily after they enter the country. Our special unit dealing with unaccompanied children checks to see whether a new case has been referred, and if there is any doubt it will contact the panel. The Asylum Directorate and the Voluntary Services Unit have regular meetings with the panel to discuss its performance and matters of mutual interest. The current arrangements are working well. We do not know of any complaints about them. The cases which have been raised in the course of this debate really are very strange. We intend to look into them, but we see no need for any change. Therefore, I hope that the amendment will not be pressed.

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