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Prompt referrals help to avoid complications which may prove costly and difficult to resolve at a later date. It is a very modest amendment and, as the noble and learned Lord said, it would cost only the price of a telephone call. I hope very much that the Minister can accept it.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, the loss of Amendment No. 58 and the decision by the noble and learned Lord to withdraw Amendment No. 59 makes this amendment all the more important. In response to Amendment No. 58 the Minister said--I hope that I correctly paraphrase her remarks--that the procedures in the first stage of seeking asylum were ones that were thoroughly undertaken on behalf of a young person. Clearly, if such procedures are thoroughly applied then the more advice the young person can receive during the first stage the more likely it is that justice will be done.
As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, many of those children do not speak the language of our country and know very little of our procedures. Therefore, on the grounds that Amendment No. 58 was not accepted by the House, there is a stronger case for accepting Amendment No. 60. Similarly, Amendment No. 59, which was withdrawn by the noble and learned Lord, also strengthens the case for the acceptance of this amendment. I say that because our discussions on Amendment No. 59 indicated that, in some cases, a young person may find himself in detention despite the fact that he is under the age of 18. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that such young people should have the support of an outside body and assistance from someone who will listen to them and try to understand what they are saying; and, indeed, be something of a comfort and support to them. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider accepting the amendment.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I worked at the Refugee Council when the panel of advisers was established. I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who played a key part in getting the whole idea accepted and approved by this House. Occasionally a young unaccompanied asylum seeker has slipped through the net. In my experience the system works well on the whole. Certainly immigration officials and other officials at the Home Office who have come into contact with young unaccompanied asylum seekers have ensured that a quick and effective referral has been made. However, sometimes an unaccompanied young asylum seeker has showed up, after having entered the country, and at that point a referral to the panel of advisers has not always occurred. Noble Lords may ask how we know about that. Occasionally such individuals are discovered, but it is
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I declare an interest as an active member of the British Red Cross for many years. One of the most successful activities of the Red Cross is its tracing service. The Home Office notifies the British Red Cross of all unaccompanied children for inclusion on its register. The Government encourage children to make use of that service. Perhaps it could be extended rather than introducing new legislation with regard to the panel of advisers.
Lord Elton: My Lords, the difficulty at Report stage is that because one cannot speak after the Minister one does not know whether one is earnestly trying to persuade the Minister to accept something she has already decided to accept, or whether one is proposing arguments to resist arguments she is not going to advance. I urge my noble friend the Minister to consider that this new clause would not provide anything for young children which it is not already Her Majesty's Government's intention that they should receive. It would merely come into effect if that intention had in some way been frustrated. It cannot therefore be regarded as adding any administrative or other burden. If there are few cases, that suggests that the burden will be even less. The cases of those individuals may be difficult. The help that has been mentioned is something they were intended to receive. The amendment is designed to ensure that they will get it in all cases. I hope that my noble friend will be friendly in her reception of it.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I say to my noble friend and to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that we are talking about means to ends here and not ends. We all want to see young people in this category referred to the panel.
Amendment No. 60 would place a duty on local authorities and health authorities to refer young unaccompanied asylum seekers to the panel of advisers if there was any doubt as to whether the child had already been referred. The panel of advisers is a non-statutory body administered by the Refugee Council. The advisers act as friends to unaccompanied children who are actually seeking asylum in the United Kingdom and assist them in their dealings with the Home Office, social services and other agencies. In the past financial year the panel dealt with over 600 children. The panel is valued by those working with these unaccompanied children and has proved to be a positive development in this sensitive area.
I should stress that the panel was set up to help those unaccompanied children who make a claim for refugee status. It was never intended to help children from abroad who have simply been abandoned in the United Kingdom. As I indicated earlier, general welfare
The noble Baroness, Lady David, has referred to a particular case. That case would fall absolutely within the category I have described. The child was not an asylum seeker. The child had entered the country by illegal means--as the noble Baroness pointed out--and was probably an illegal over-stayer. The child was in the hands of someone in the country. The welfare of that child would be a matter for the authorities because at that stage the child was not an asylum seeker and may not even potentially be an asylum seeker.
In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to children who may have come here as visitors and overstayed--she has given an example today--and said that it was important that someone helped them to establish their immigration status. I agree that it is important that children's immigration status should be clarified. But we should not confuse that issue with the issue of unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum. These amendments seek to address that issue. Nor would it be appropriate for a child to make a claim for asylum simply as a means of prolonging his stay in the United Kingdom. It is recognised that asylum seeking children may be potentially vulnerable because of their circumstances before coming here, and it is therefore appropriate that they should have the special assistance of the Refugee Council's panel of advisers. That is not the case where a child is simply here without a family to look after him.
Well over half of all referrals to the panel are made in the first instance by the Immigration Service or the Asylum Directorate. Our special unit dealing with unaccompanied children always checks to see whether a new case has been referred, and if there is any doubt it will contact the panel. The amendment would place a statutory duty on schools, housing departments, social services departments, GPs, hospitals, child psychologists and others to notify the panel in any case where there is doubt as to whether a young unaccompanied asylum seeker has been referred to them. For some of these agencies the amendment could raise difficult issues of confidentiality. It could also lead to children being asked unwelcome or inappropriate questions about their immigration status. Let us consider the child in school. There may be no question of that child seeking asylum. The child may never have thought of seeking asylum. However, in some way the teacher may become an interrogator. The head teacher may become an interrogator. There will be phone calls made all over the place. The welfare of that child is important and the school and the authorities have a responsibility for that. However, we are talking here about asylum seekers.
The Asylum Directorate liaises regularly with local authorities to increase understanding of the procedures for handling these sensitive cases. Staff from the special casework unit have attended a number of meetings and seminars with social workers to talk about the issues. Directors of social services in London, where most of the unaccompanied children live, have been reminded
While I understand the sentiments behind the amendment, I am not sure that to put an absolute legal obligation on all these agencies to inform the authorities is necessary. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, gave an example of a child coming here in 1994 who was not referred to the panel. It was a real case. The unaccompanied children's team in the Home Office was only established in May 1995. It now ensures that all applicants are referred to the panel. On seeking asylum status the child is automatically referred to the panel. The examples mentioned by the noble and learned Lord do not support the case for this amendment now that those measures are in place. All cases are referred to the Home Office unit which ensures that all of those cases are or have been referred to the panel. Those arrangements are in place. There appears to be some confusion between the welfare of a child and the care of a child who is not an asylum seeker, and those who are asylum seekers. The moment a child becomes an asylum seeker the panel is automatically notified.
The noble Baroness, Lady David, recognised that amendments have been adjusted since the Committee stage. I am grateful for the work that has been done. However, the movers of the amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, the noble Baroness, Lady David, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon have not established the existence of a significant problem because, as I said, measures are now in place and it is unlikely that any child anywhere will fall through the net. Even if a school or an authority identified such a child, and in addressing the needs and the care of that child it became obvious that the child should be an asylum seeker, or was an asylum seeker, the moment that is discovered the new system comes into operation.
That is not a sufficient basis for creating a new statutory duty for a wide range of bodies. We believe that it is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and are fearful of the burden that would be laid on all the bodies; namely, the duty, in all cases, to refer asylum seekers to a panel, with the duplication that would exist if a particular child were in school, under the care of a doctor, in hospital, and so on. Of paramount importance is the care of the child, not necessarily that the child is an asylum seeker.
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