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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I apologise to the right reverend Prelate, with whom I would have wished to agree on this occasion, that I am not able to do so save in one respect; that is, in relation to the absence of appeal from the designated states and false documents. On that--I am speaking to the group of amendments as a whole, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby--I have my reservations. I accept that this is a matter containing a strong moral element of which the law should take account otherwise than in the case of judicial review.
This series of amendments is designed to fill a gap. Apart from the reservation of which I have just spoken--a reservation made also by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, and the right reverend Prelate--in relation to the appeal, on an objective examination I can see no gap. The Immigration Rules provide that applications for unaccompanied children must receive priority. I made some inquiries--I am open to correction--and it appears that on arrival the child is seen and dealt with by a panel of advisers which is a non-statutory body funded by the Home Office and administered by the Refugee Council. Accommodation is found for the child; food and care are provided and also help with arrangements concerning the Home Office through an asylum directorate which last year dealt with over 600 children.
The asylum directorate was widely welcomed by local authorities, the Refugee Council, the international social services and others working for children. The Home Office has a special unit which deals with unaccompanied children and notifies the Red Cross. Broadly speaking, that is the regime which operates. It seems to me that those arrangements provide the necessary safeguards for unaccompanied children.
Clause 1 will not affect special arrangements for the initial consideration of claims by the Home Office and appeals made by unaccompanied children are already given priority by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Furthermore, on the question of removal, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 49/172 of 1994 reaffirmed the importance of family reunification. If that is not possible, it is the intention to return the children to other suitable carers. I am informed that the Home Office would not remove unaccompanied children to safe third countries unless it is confirmed that suitable arrangements are in place in the country concerned.
There is little else with which I wish to detain the House other than the question of detention. According to my information the children are only detained in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort.
Lord Brightman: My Lords, I have not spoken to any amendment except Amendment No. 58. I am wondering whether we will get into a muddle and whether I at any rate will be pre-empted if your Lordships speak on other amendments before I have had an opportunity to express my views to your Lordships.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, with deference to the noble and learned Lord, I was not going to say much more and what more I was going to say shall not now be said. I do not wish to impose on the noble and learned Lord or the House.
My point is this. Leaving aside the issue of detention, which your Lordships will consider later, the question is whether or not the present regime is satisfactory. If it is, as I understand it to be, to what purpose do we add further administrative burden and complexity? It is reasonable to say, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, that I am speaking also to Amendment No. 60.
Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, defends the present regime. I do not think he has entirely taken on board the fact that the present regime is altered by Clause 1, from which this amendment would exempt unaccompanied children. Clause 1 of this Bill introduces a fast-tracking procedure, which may, we fear, be a little like getting into a current leading to a waterfall. In those circumstances the noble Lord's safeguards may no longer operate.
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, I support Amendment No. 58 and I shall speak only to that amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, described in some detail the way in which the present system gives priority to children. One applauds that. However, the change that will be introduced by the Bill is that children may well be given priority, but they will not be given time. The consequences of the fast-track procedure are that although children may be given priority they will find themselves out of the country perhaps even faster than adults. They would not have the time they receive under the present appeals
We are talking about a very small proportion of asylum seekers--merely 600 children. It is said that traditionally this country has a reputation for fairness and generosity. It seems shameful that we should jeopardise that reputation by subjecting children to the fast-track procedure of appeals. Children fleeing persecution are even less likely than adults to present a coherent and convincing account of their ordeals and may have even more difficulty getting together the necessary paperwork. Therefore, it is inappropriate that they should be subjected to a fast-track appeals procedure. The amendment will give children the opportunity to present their case without the appearance of hurry and, therefore, rough injustice.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will listen sympathetically to what has been said. The position of children in this country apparently without proper documentation and the support of adults is a difficult one. I do not believe that many children are involved. The opportunity has been given to the Minister to make their position absolutely watertight and safe if this amendment were accepted. I hope very much that my noble friend will see the advantage of making absolutely sure that we do not treat badly the most pathetic cases of all, refugee children.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, when my noble friend replies, will she comment on two points? I understood that Clause 1 will not affect the special arrangements for the initial consideration of such claims by the Home Office. It is also my belief that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will support applying the accelerated procedure for children. I ask my noble friend to comment.
Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I had not intended to intervene. I have listened with great care to what has been said. We all want the best for children in this situation. But no mention has been made of the families and parents of the children. Can the Minister say what happens when the parents are in other countries? What efforts are made to reunite the children with their families?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, these amendments concern the procedures that should apply to the consideration of asylum claims made by unaccompanied children. As I have said previously during the passage of this Bill through this House, our proposals in Clause 1 to extend the accelerated appeal procedure do not affect the way in which asylum applications are considered initially by the Home Office. The issue of whether to certify a claim only comes into play after the application has been considered fully and a decision made to refuse. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that Clause 1 does not introduce a fast-track procedure but merely extends the circumstances in which the
Children are given as much time as they need to prove their case. It is only when they have been found not to merit asylum that the specialist unit will consider applying a certificate. That certificate will only be applied and justified, given the maturity of the child. So all that will be taken into account.
The special arrangements we already have in place for considering asylum applications from unaccompanied children will not be changed by the provisions in Clause 1. So I can give my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter the assurance that special arrangements are in place and will continue to be in place to deal with children. As regards the exchange between my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, my noble friend is absolutely right. We have in place special arrangements and the measures in the Bill do not alter them at all.
Before I address the precise terms of the amendment, it may be worth reminding the House of the safeguards. First, cases of such children are given special priority and care and are considered by specialist case workers in the unaccompanied children's team in the asylum directorate. When children under the age of 18 arrive, they continue to have their cases considered by the special unit even after they reach the age of 18. In order to minimise stress, children are interviewed about their asylum claim only when it has not proved possible to obtain sufficient information by written inquiries. It is rare for an interview to be needed, but if one is required an independent adult will be present to look after the child's interests. Staff who interview children have had special training to equip them for the task.
Secondly, the Government fund a panel of advisers for refugee and asylum-seeking children, which is managed by the Refugee Council. All unaccompanied children who claim asylum are referred to the panel which helps them in their dealings with the Home Office and other agencies. The British Red Cross Society is also given details of all unaccompanied children, whether asylum-seeking or not, for inclusion in its confidential register. Children are encouraged to use the Red Cross tracing service to restore contact with their families. In addition, the Department of Health has provided a practice guide and a training pack on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to assist social services departments in providing for their needs.
I felt that it was worth spending some time to show the range of measures already in place to ensure that the cases of unaccompanied children are given particular care and priority. As I said, Clause 1 of the Bill will not affect those arrangements. Moreover, the short procedure, which is an accelerated determination procedure for the initial consideration of asylum claims by the Home Office, is not applied to claims from unaccompanied children and we have no plans to do so.
Children are always given sufficient time to provide evidence to support their claim before an initial decision is reached. I should also state that the immigration appeal tribunal has recently said as regards unaccompanied children: