UK Borders Bill
Baroness Hanham (Shadow Minister, Home Affairs; Conservative)
My Lords, I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, speaking to his amendment; I hope that he will listen as avidly to me and that I live up to his expectations. This is an extremely important area.
My amendment is a multiplication of the two amendments on the matter moved by my noble friend Lady Anelay in Committee. They were drafted by the Refugee Children's Consortium to address some of the concerns raised by your Lordships in Committee about applying Section 11 directly to these government services. Although we on these Benches are glad that the Government have made some steps towards our position by introducing Clause 21, we do not feel that a code of practice alone, however strongly it is worded—we are not sure that it is strongly worded—provides the level of protection for children that the amendment would.
Like other noble Lords, I received the code of practice while in the Chamber and consequently have not had as much time as I should have liked to look at it, but I understand that the Government have promised that the code of practice is being toughened up. I hope that when we look through it we will find that that toughening is there.
The Government have an extraordinary aversion to placing commitments in primary legislation. Their usual excuse is the perennial cry of flexibility, but in this situation that will not wash. A flexible attitude to the welfare of children is not one that I—or, as I hope and understand, any Member on the opposition Benches—would support. I therefore cannot see why the Government feel unable to confirm their stated intention to protect children in the immigration system to the extent that the amendment would ensure. By putting the safeguards in the Bill, we can ensure that no future Government could fall below the standards that we are aiming for, whether because of a change in priorities, budget restrictions or any other reasons.
The amendment contains two requirements that the Government have previously objected to. We and the Refugee Children's Consortium feel that those objections are not justified and we hope to persuade the Government of the feasibility of including both a promotion of children's welfare and a commitment to applying these standards to contracted-out organisations.
First, there is the promotion of child welfare. The Children Act 1989 provides the statutory framework for how children of the United Kingdom are to be safeguarded and their welfare promoted. The framework for the assessment of children in need and their families sets out the definition of what promoting welfare involves, so clarity about what the obligation involves cannot be an issue. However, the Government have objected to that requirement on the grounds that that definition involves providing opportunities to optimise life changes. Their stated concerns ignore the established fact that agencies need do that only,
"in the discharge of their functions".
It is not an absolute duty. It is therefore clear that the requirement would not prevent the Home Department from implementing a removal direction for a child and his or her family. It would, at most, affect the manner in which the Home Department did that. In addition, the amendment limits the duty of the Home Department to children within the United Kingdom. Clearly, once they have been deported, there is no obligation to promote their welfare, as that would be completely impractical.
Secondly, the amendment would extend the requirements to cover organisations to which services had been specifically contracted out. The Government's drive to improve standards by privatising many government functions has our support. It can indeed be a way to increase efficiency and effectiveness and to tap into the enormous expertise of voluntary and business sectors. However, such a drive can succeed only with suitable safeguards. Enormous care must be taken to ensure that outside organisations do not offer a service below what the public can demand from a government body. On this matter, I cannot imagine what objections the Minister would have. If he feels that these standards are suitable for a government body, they must also be applicable to private or non-governmental bodies.
In summary, the amendment addresses the reasonable concerns raised in Committee about the wholesale application of Section 11 to this area. On the other hand, we must insist that the provisions are in primary legislation to give children the security that they need and to protect their welfare. I beg to move.