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The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I should like to speak to the amendments which are tabled in my name as well. Amendment No. 6 is second-best, while Amendment No. 7 is what we really want. I am sorry to have missed debates on this matter at previous stages of the Bill, but I have followed them with keen interest, and I promise that I will be brief.
I have frankly been disappointed that at every stage the Government have not seen fit to accept any amendments to the clause that would have provided increased protection for children. I remind your Lordships that at all stages the aim of those who oppose this clause has been to ensure that children are best protected and that their best interests are safeguarded.
The clause is not about voluntary departure. It envisages the separation of children from their families. That, it seems to me, is fundamentally wrong, a view shared by my colleagues on these Benches. It is something of an irony that, in the context of the Government bringing forward the Children Bill, this loophole is not closed.
I accept the Government's aspirations that people will decide to co-operate voluntarily with removal. At all stages of the Bill, Ministers have sought to assure this House and another place that it is their hope that people will co-operate. Ministers have argued that if they do not, parents will be putting their children at risk by their actions. But it simply cannot be acceptable for this House to pass legislation on the basis only of a leap of faith, in the hope that its worst effects will not be felt by children. It is not acceptable for the Government to argue that if children are affected, the fault lies with the parents. The Government, in my view, must take responsibility for their inadequate legislation.
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In addressing your Lordships, I am grateful to the Children's Society and the Refugee Children's Consortium for their continued lobbying on this clause and their commitment to the rights and needs of refugee children. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to provide some further information and assurances that will help to allay some of their fears. If not, and were the opinion of the House to be tested, I fear that I would vote against the clause and invite other noble Lords to do the same.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I support both amendments, Amendment No. 7 being particularly desirable. I should like the Minister to say more about the consultation prior to the implementation of the clauseif it is implementedon 1 September. I declare an interest as a member, several years ago, of a sponsored visit to Angola by UNICEF to examine the course of the journey of the refugee child. I should also like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to convey my thanks to his colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, for her meeting with me in the past, her correspondence, the meetings she has arranged between officials and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and the Refugee Children's Consortium. They have been very helpful indeed.
A specific concern has been expressed by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture that vulnerable families would be caught by these provisions. A reassurance that there will be thorough consultation would be very helpful.
The timing of the clause seems very strange. Given what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said earlier, it is admirable that there has been such a reduction in the number of applications for asylum. In a period of months, 80 per cent of asylum claims are processed within two months. That is a grand achievement on the part of the Government. Twice as many failed asylum claimants are now returned to their home country. Good progress is clearly being made. So is this the right time to introduce such a draconian measure, because draconian it certainly is? The clause envisages a situation in which children and families will be put into the street. The Government have made it quite clear that they are also prepared to accept children being taken into care as a result of the clause. This is a very serious matter for these families.
I emphasise again that it would be so helpful to have from the Minister some reassurance that there will be thorough consultation before the implementation of the clause, if it is to be implemented. It has been made very clear in discussions on the Bill that the consultation prior to its being brought before Parliament was not adequate. One understands thisthe Home Office has very serious responsibilities. It is often the case with Home Office Bills that there has not been the time to consult properly.
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When we are dealing with children and families, no matter how irresponsible the parents may be, we have a special duty to consult and think very carefully about what guidance and regulations will determine the behaviour of immigration officers. I look forward to the Minister's response.
The people we are talking about are failed asylum seekers. They have been through the whole process and have no other avenue open to them because their claim has failed. They have no right to remain in the country, at the taxpayers' expense. That is what we are dealing with, although it does not always appear like that when we use the necessary shorthand in our speeches dealing with individual cases.
I should like to answer a point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. He said that he had not been present at the debates but he had followed all the proceedings in detail. Well, he got one thing wrong. The Government have listened on this issue. We amended the Billin the Commons, trueto introduce a right of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator. It may have been a fault that the Bill was introduced without the right of appeal, and putting it in was the right thing to do. I want to make that point, because otherwise the folklore gets out that the Government have not been listening, are ramming it through Parliament and are not worried about children.
The consequence would be an invitation for the very irresponsible parents to whom the noble Earl referred to run this country's immigration policy. That is what the implication is, if we do nothing about the situation. The noble Earl would not say that, and I would not expect him to. But the consequence is that notwithstanding the irresponsibility of the parents, we have to look after the children. We would be saying to those irresponsible parents, "You run the country's immigration policy. If you have failed in your asylum case and you decide not to co-operate and not to return voluntarily, it does not matter. Because of the overwhelming needs of the children, whom you are using as a shield, you can stay for ever and the British taxpayer will pay for you". That is simply not acceptable.
This is not an issue that has popped up out of nowhere. I realise that the Government never consult enoughI accept that and apologise for it. They do not introduce all the draft Bills that they should. However, the clause did not appear on a whim of the Home Secretary early this year or late last year, when the Bill was introduced. It is not as though such issues had not been discussed; we looked at the evidence and tried desperately to make a reasoned, proportionate response to the issues that arose at the time, and are with us nowto a lesser extent, I accept. But it is no reason to withdraw the clause and take away the idea
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just because the numbers have gone down. They have done so partly as a result of the series of issues to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred earlier.
There are two issues involved: first, the prospect of ameliorating the clause through guidance; and, secondly, the proposal to leave the clause out, which is a matter of some principle that I know has been debated previously in the House. I assure noble Lords that detailed guidance will of course be published, but it will not be issued in the form of a statutory instrument of secondary legislation. That would not be the normal process in any event, although I realise that that is one way of securing a debate in this place.
It is common practice for guidance of that nature to be placed on the website of the Immigration and Nationality Department. We will update the guidance as procedures develop and further issues arise. In that way, we can make sure that the procedures used are transparent. Therefore, we cannot accept the use of secondary legislation as proposed by the amendment, but there will certainly be guidance.
It would be helpful if I indicated the type of information that would be included in such guidance. It will make clear, for example, that any decision to certify needs to be copied to the family's representative, if it has one, in line with the undertaking given during the passage of the Bill. It will make clear also that, if support is withdrawn, the local authority will be informed at that time. The guidance will also advise staff about the particular information they will need to ascertain where the family attends an interview. It will set out how staff can assess whether the family has taken reasonable steps or whether it has a reasonable excuse for not having done so.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and others have expressed concern that there may not be an adequate assessment of whether a withdrawal of support would breach the European Convention on Human Rights. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said much the same thing. We do not accept that. The individual circumstances will be assessed in each case. The guidance will set out the need to examine relevant information put forward by the family about their individual circumstances. That may include, for example, the age of the children and whether there are any special needs in particular cases. Of course, we are willing to receive comments at any time if there are particular concerns and we will assess whether those need to be reflected in the guidance that we issue.
There has been considerable discussion about Clause 9. I realise thatto put it mildlyit is a highly sensitive issue. It has caused ferocious debate in both Houses. It is an issue on which we have had to take a difficult decision. That is why I said earlier that the clause was not produced on a whim over the course of a weekend. I recall the issue being discussed in the Home Office when I was a Minister there.
Since the issue was discussed on Report, we have listened carefully to the concerns that have been put to us by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and representatives from the Refugee Children's Consortium. We are very grateful for the
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constructive approach that has been takennotwithstanding the fundamental difference of opinion. There is no sense in trying to sugar-coat the issue.
The clause is not designed to make families destitute. That is not our aim. The clause was never designed to take children into care and to split families. That was never its aim, whatever the original propaganda may have stated. However, we are making it clear that families affected by the clause do not have the option of remaining in the United Kingdom permanently. We have to make that clear, not hint at it by giving families the option of using the children as a shield and sending the wrong signals. That does not help them in any way whatever. We have to make it clear that their appeal against the asylum decision has been rejected. We are not talking about asylum seekers or refugees; we are talking about people who have made a claim for asylum and failed. We have to use that language and not pussy-foot around. Otherwise, we will send the wrong information and the wrong signals to those who are asylum seekers and those whose appeals have succeeded and who have become refugees because their status is different. We have to be absolutely clear about the status of the people to whom Clause 9 refers.
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