Clause 7 — Failed asylum seekers: withdrawal of support

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, Etc.) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:49 pm on 1st March 2004.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 17, in page 8, line 23, leave out 'has' and insert—

'and his legal representative have'.

Amendment No. 16, in page 8, line 25, leave out '14' and insert '28'.

Amendment No. 18, in page 8, line 31, after 'address', insert—

'and to his legal representative'.

Amendment No. 19, in page 8, line 34, at end insert—

'by up to 7 days'.

Government amendments Nos. 74 to 77.

Amendment No. 33, in schedule 4, page 41, line 24, second column, at beginning insert—

'Section 55.'.

New clause 1—Repeal of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002

'Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (c. 41) (late claim for asylum: refusal of support) shall cease to have effect.'.

New clause 12—Determination of claim for asylum—

'For subsection 94(3) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 substitute—

"(3) For the purposes of this Part, a claim for asylum is determined at the end of such period beginning—

(a) on the day on which the Secretary of State notifies the claimant of the associated termination of his or her support, or

(b) if the claimant has appealed against the Secretary of State's decision, and the appeal has been disposed of, on the day on which the Secretary of State notifies the appellant of the associated termination of his or her support, as may be prescribed.".'.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Having moved the amendment, may I add that I support new clause 1, which was tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard?

Eight days ago I had the privilege of attending a multi-faith commemorative service in Lancaster cathedral to mark the tragic loss of 20 poor souls only four or five miles away on the sands of Morecambe bay. That dreadful incident is well known to hon. Members, and undoubtedly the disaster had many facets. However, it is important to note that in that packed cathedral, in which the congregation was made up of people of many denominations and faiths, there was compassion for the people who lost their lives, irrespective of their asylum status or the country from which they came. It was an utterly moving occasion.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to move amendment No. 23, and grateful for the support of Labour Back Benchers, Liberal Democrats and Scottish nationalists. However, I am dismayed that all the sound and fury from the Leader of the Opposition on this matter only a few weeks ago now apparently signifies nothing. His strong feelings have evaporated into the puny efforts of amendments Nos. 16 to 19. In less than an hour, Conservative Members will have the chance to redeem themselves.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

May I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition rightly complained about the Downing street briefing on a policy of taking children into care? That briefing took place before the Bill was published, and he was entirely right to say that no Bill should include any such measure.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I was under the impression that the Leader of the Opposition cared about asylum seekers, but plainly that is not the case.

Before long, Conservative Members will have a chance to redeem themselves by supporting the amendment, which would delete every word of clause 7, in a Division. If they fail to do so, their efforts to express concern about the protection of vulnerable children, which is the subject of their Opposition debate on Wednesday, will be met with ridicule. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration for the meeting that she allowed me after Second Reading to discuss my concerns about clause 7. I was pleased to receive a draft outline of the five-stage process that the National Asylum Support Service would undertake before support to failed asylum-seeking families who are not co-operating with the departure process ends.

I acknowledge my right hon. Friend's conscientious work in trying to achieve a fair asylum and immigration system in this country, and I support her in that work: it is necessary to achieve that fair and open system in this country and, clearly, difficult steps have to be taken to do so. However, I absolutely and firmly believe that it is morally wrong to make families destitute—or, indeed, to threaten to make them destitute—as part of a process to encourage them to return home. I cannot believe that I am alone in that view or that the only hon. Members who support it are those who have so far signed up to amendment No. 23. I suspect that all hon. Members on both sides of the House would oppose clause 7 if they were able to answer honestly when asked away from the confines of the Chamber and the party whipping system.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

Does not every law that we pass include sanctions that may well result in parents going to prison, so that, in turn, their children become looked after by local authorities and others? Is this, in fact, not exactly the same kind of measure?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am not aware of any measure that has reached this stage in the House that would make children in this country destitute. I cannot believe that such a measure is acceptable. Frankly, I cannot believe that it is coming from the party of which I have been a member for more than quarter of a century.

Such a measure is unnecessary and would be counter-productive. Once all advocacy has failed, there is a more effective way to work with families who have to return home. The ultimate sanction for such families is not stripping them of every possible means of livelihood, but enforced removal. The work that needs to be done for those families for whom all efforts to remain have failed includes counselling to help them to face the reality of their situation, practical support to help them to prepare for going home, good communication with non-governmental organisations, public agencies, and family or kinship networks in their home countries to ensure that they will be properly received and that there will be somewhere reasonable for them to go. That involves sensitive, careful and detailed work.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, if a family co-operates in the way that he outlines—by keeping appointments and being prepared to meet voluntary organisations to talk about their return—they will be fully supported throughout the process? That support will not end. What would he advise us to do in those circumstances where a family resolutely will not co-operate with those requests for interviews or take part in opportunities to work with voluntary organisations? What should we do then?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and I want to address precisely the issues that she raises. The programme that she sets out is a good one—I would want more work to be put into it and more resources devoted to it—but what she wants to do with the families she describes is fatally undermined by the principles of clause 7.

This Government sometimes overlook the value and significance of social work with families, and they would achieve a great deal more if they remembered what social workers do. Social workers have an enormous role to play in taking on work relating to such families and unaccompanied children. Reunification is an important social task, and the approach that I am suggesting—by contrast with that set out in the Bill, and in clause 7 in particular—is entirely ethical. Such families would respond more readily to my approach because it would help to allay their fears, and because it would provide them with real and practical assistance.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 5:15 pm, 1st March 2004

I am very interested in, and supportive of, what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that when the Government produced their Green Paper "Every Child Matters", we Members of Parliament thought that they meant every child, not every child except the children of asylum seekers and immigrants?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

The hon. Lady is clearly right, and "every child matters" is a fine and inspirational statement that we should try to apply to all children living in this country, wherever they came from and whatever their asylum status.

I am advocating a much greater emphasis on linking families in this country with resources in their own country, and the development of real, international, good-quality family social work. Unlike clause 7, my approach would not drive families underground and into the hands of criminals, traffickers and pimps. It would not encourage families to leave their children with social services because they do not have the means to look after them themselves. It would not lead to families being made destitute and homeless, and to their being criminalised and having to beg on the streets. It is true that it would not prevent forced removals, but nor would clause 7. It would not provide documents for those who cannot be removed, but nor would clause 7. However, it would not alienate the entire social work profession, the very professional standards of which should ensure that no social worker complies with clause 7. Indeed, the British Association of Social Workers has demonstrated outside Parliament today, probably for the first time in decades, against the Bill and against the fact that this proposal works entirely against the standing and principles of its profession.

The course of action that I am suggesting would be more humane and helpful than clause 7, and I believe that it would work. An international social work approach to these very difficult human issues would work far better than what is currently envisaged under clause 7. It would be principled and rooted in the UN convention on the rights of the child, and in the European convention on human rights; but it would also be firm and fair. Indeed, I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister would advocate such an approach, but it cannot work alongside clause 7. As well as being simply wrong, making people and their children destitute when they are desperate, afraid and utterly uncertain as to what the future might hold is completely counter-productive.

My right hon. Friend the Minister asks how I would deal with people who will not comply. I would not do so by making them so utterly destitute that they have to seek their resources from elsewhere—by going underground. I would do so through simple, patient face-to-face work that helps them to face the reality of the situation, and which gives them practical support and treats them with dignity and humanity. Such an approach might not work in all cases, but it is by far the best one for a civilised country to take, and I believe that it would work in the vast majority of cases.

I honestly believe that mine is the right approach. I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Minister to dump clause 7 today, although it would be marvellous if she did. I shall be voting against it, and I hope that every Member of the House will vote with their conscience and help to reject it.

Whatever the fate of this clause or this severely flawed Bill, I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept my proposal in good faith and resist the urge to tell me that although it is all very well, it will never work in practice. I hope that before the Bill goes through or plans to remove unaccompanied asylum seeking children are introduced, she will agree to work with the social work profession to develop a more ethical and effective approach and a calmer, more reasonable and more helpful way in which to assist people to find their way out of dreadful, uncertain circumstances in this country and to give them a better certainty in future when they have to go home.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I thank Mr. Dawson, who has a history of interest in such matters, for the way in which he introduced his amendment. However, I must bluntly say to him that his criticisms of the attitude of Conservative Members might have been better directed against Members on his own side, because the amendment reveals to the House the deep divisions within the Labour party on the question of support for failed asylum seekers. When he puts the matter to a vote, he will find that the Government whom he supports are wholly against his proposition and will do all that they can to vote it down. I therefore hope that in winding up he will reserve some of his critical remarks for his own Government, against whom he speaks with much force today.

Clause 7, which has been the subject of much discussion—not least in Committee, where it occupied us for two or three sittings—deals with the position of failed asylum seekers in terms of their support. It is well known, but let me reaffirm it, that failed asylum seekers with dependent children receive asylum support until such time as they leave the UK or fail to comply with a removal direction. As stated in the explanatory notes, the clause provides that

"if the Secretary of State certifies that, in his opinion, such a person has failed without reasonable excuse to take reasonable steps to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily or place himself in a position in which he is able to leave the United Kingdom . . . asylum support for the family will cease."

My party does not disagree with that. It is proper, and fair to our system, that when people have exhausted their rights of appeal under asylum laws, benefits should be removed from them. That brings into sharp focus the whole issue of removals policy, where for the past few years the Government have been their own worst enemy in setting themselves a series of targets that they have never been able to reach and have had to drop one by one, instead introducing amnesties for failed asylum seekers. A parliamentary question that was answered on 11 December 2001 told me that the target for removals of failed asylum seekers for the year 2003–04 was 37,000. The Government utterly failed to meet that target and it has been dropped.

The clause deals with the certification period. My probing amendments would make its operation more efficient and sensible. The period between the refusal of a last appeal and the removal direction is a kind of limbo. If the Government are to be able to certify at any stage during that period that the person concerned is not taking reasonable steps to leave the UK, they must be carefully scrutinised in that respect.

A matter was briefly raised in Committee that I want to consider again today. What will the Government do about certification when a failed asylum seeker does not have removal directions served on him or her for some reason? For example, under the Bill, many failed asylum seekers whom the Government will not remove could be certified in relation to support. One reason for not removing them might be that the country of origin, as in the case of China, is unwilling to take back failed asylum seekers. Another reason might be practical difficulties, for example, a lack of airports in the specific part of the country from which the asylum applicant came.

Let us consider Zimbabwe, to which the Government have suspended removals for some time. Only a week ago, I asked the Government about their removal policy to Zimbabwe. They replied that

"although it would be safe for failed asylum seekers to return to Zimbabwe, our view at present is that in the wider context of the Government's position on Zimbabwe, it would be inappropriate forcibly to return them at this time."—[Hansard, 23 February 2004; Vol. 418, c. 264W.]

That prompts the question of what could happen to a failed asylum seeker who cannot be removed because of either the Government's direct policy of non-removal, as in the case of Zimbabwe, or the impracticality of removal.

I raised the subject in Committee when I stressed that I believed that it was important to establish some form of appeal against the certification process. I am pleased that, as a result of my arguments, those of my hon. Friends and those in other parties in Committee, at the end of the debate, the Government said that it would be appropriate to introduce a limited form of appeal against cutting off benefits, but not removal. That shows the way in which Committees can work to the benefit of all concerned.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

From listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument so far, he appears to accept that there will inevitably be circumstances in which benefits to a failed asylum seeker have to be stopped. It is regrettable, but we will get to that stage. If that happens, what should happen to the children?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

That is a difficult question. The other side of the coin is the argument that one should never reach that stage and that the host country should continue to provide financial support indefinitely to failed asylum seekers. I cannot agree with that proposition. Although I hope that I always speak moderately, there is a question of parental responsibility. I wish that there were more opportunity to challenge a bad decision, but I have no reason to believe that the Government would act other than in good faith on the matter. If they act in good faith, they will not serve the certification notice until they are satisfied that the family concerned could and should go back to where they came from. They should not serve it when there is doubt, a suspended removals policy or when it is not practicable for a person to return to the relevant country.

Hitherto, the notice has been served when removal directions have been given. That is an administrative act, effectively the last act in the chain, by which time the Government are in a position to remove. By bringing that forward and giving themselves an option to serve the notice earlier, when appeals have failed, the Government have created a period of limbo. I therefore seek from the Minister an assurance that difficult cases, which are subject to the notice prior to a removal direction, can be tackled humanely, sensibly and properly.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

Effectively, the hon. Gentleman is therefore saying that he would not stop the benefit of a failed asylum seeker—he would only stop the benefit when the asylum seeker was ready to get on the plane back home. Is that what he is saying?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking 5:30 pm, 1st March 2004

The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood me, no doubt inadvertently. What I am saying is that there comes a time at which benefit must stop. If an asylum seeker has failed in their claim, their appeal and their final appeal, it does not seem wrong in principle to say that from that moment, the benefit should stop, rather than waiting sometimes for many months until the removal directions are given, which is much later in those proceedings—

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

What about the children?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The hon. Gentleman raises again the question of the children. I dare say that that is a question that he will raise with his Minister, as clearly, from what he has said tonight, he is bitterly at odds with his own Government—and he is not the only Labour Member at odds with the Government. I am looking forward to hearing him challenge his Minister in the strongest possible way. Let us see if he does so.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

As the hon. Gentleman noticed in Committee, I fully support the Government's measures on this point.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

In that case, the hon. Gentleman is playing devil's advocate and teasing me somewhat.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that what we really need is a Government who can persuade people to go back if their claim has failed, and that the only satisfactory outcome is either legal settlement here or early return to another safe country whence the person came or to which they choose to go. What we are looking at is a failure to achieve that. Given the underlying reality—the Government's failure to persuade people to leave—this is a clumsy instrument, to which there is an ugly side.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

My right hon. Friend raises a good point. Again, he draws attention to the fact that the Government, over seven years, have not been able at any stage to put in place an effective removals policy. It is simply not good enough to answer a parliamentary question by talking in terms of targets of 33,000, 35,000 or 37,000 removals a year of failed asylum seekers, and to fail lamentably in that purpose. Mr. Blizzard, who, I am sure, will contribute to this debate, will know as well as I do that at the moment only one in four failed asylum seekers are ever removed from this country. That is not a record of which any Government can be proud.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

How, therefore, does the hon. Gentleman answer the following question, which is the same one that I put to the Government? Let us imagine that someone has made an application that has failed and that they are willing to co-operate with voluntary return, which people who come to my surgery often say that they are. Before that happens, however, there is a period in which they have no income, and they may have children to support. There must be a humane and civilised response to that predicament. At the moment, none is on offer from the Government, and I do not hear any on offer from the Conservative Front Bench.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

What I say to the hon. Gentleman, whose expertise on this subject is well known and has been appreciated over many years on various Standing Committees, is that one looks to a Government to behave reasonably in each case. If someone is willing to go, is about to go and is making arrangements to go, and that is imminent, an argument exists for the Government not to serve the certification notice but to wait until they take the view that the person is refusing to go.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Have not the Government made it plain that while families are co-operating with the removal process they will not have social security benefits removed from them? Is not the hon. Gentleman setting out a position whereby the Conservative party accepts what its leader railed against some weeks ago—one in which children will have to be received into care because of the destitution of parents?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that when my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of my party, who, incidentally, comes from a refugee background, raised the issue of children being taken into care, he was doing so following a briefing from Government circles—we never quite discovered who was responsible for it, because it was denied, I think—that the taking of children into care would in effect be used as a mechanism to encourage people to leave the country.

We were strongly against that, and my right hon. and learned Friend was right to feel as he did. When the Bill was published the matter was not referred to, so the issue did not arise.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Is not the threatened removal of children still being used in that way in clause 7? Does it not pose the threat of their being taken into care if there is no voluntary departure?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I have read clause 7. I know that the hon. Lady did not have the benefit of serving with us in Committee, but at no stage does clause 7 threaten the use of children as a tool.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I am anxious to make progress because many others want to speak, but I will give way to the hon. Lady, who served on the Committee.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Spokesperson (Social Security (SNP Shadow Scottish Minister); Education & Skills; Home Office; Law Officers; Work & Pensions)

It was clear in Committee that although no provision in the Bill would directly require such action, it might well occur as a consequence of the provision. That, I think, is what we have been talking about.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The hon. Lady may be right, but if she is suggesting as a direct alternative that benefit for failed asylum seekers and their families should never cease, I cannot agree with her.

One of my amendments would change the period relating to the cessation of benefit. I think it more appropriate to allow people 28 rather than 14 days following receipt of the certificate, so that they have more time in which to organise their lives. Another, minor amendment suggests that notice should be served not just on the applicant but on the applicant's legal representative. Clause 7 allows the Secretary of State to vary the specified period. Because I do not want him to be able to vary it to the extreme detriment of a failed asylum seeker by varying it to, say, one day, I have also tabled an amendment that will allow him to vary it by up to seven days—from, that is, the 28 days that I suggested in my earlier amendment. That would provide a little more leeway.

I must tell the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that my party cannot support amendment No. 23. I hear "Tut, tut" from a number of Labour Members, but they must understand that their own Government, to whom they are indebted, are violently against their proposition in any event. I hope that when they make critical remarks during the debate they will direct them at the Government, who will oppose them when the matter comes to a vote.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I support amendment No. 23, but I want to concentrate on amendment No. 33 and new clause 1, which bear my name and those of, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck).

New clause 1 would repeal section 55 of the 2002 Act. Members who were present for the debate on that Bill will recall that we had only about 15 minutes in which to discuss the introduction of that provision. It appears we shall have rather less time on this occasion to debate a section that has left thousands destitute, on the streets with no support. When it came into effect, we were given numerous assurances. We were told that it was intended to deal with people who had entered the country, worked illegally and eventually claimed asylum, or people whose entry visas had expired and who had then claimed asylum—in other words, people who had been in the country for substantial periods. We were told that a reasonable amount of time would have to elapse before someone was refused support on the basis that a claim had been made late.

We have seen what has actually happened. People have been refused support, in some cases after being in the country only a matter of hours. There have certainly been many cases of people being refused support when they have been in the country for just a few days. People have had to sleep rough on the streets or survive on the generosity of others in refugee communities who do not themselves have many resources to offer.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Is my hon. Friend aware of the Refugee Council survey of people left destitute under section 55? It found that 61 per cent. of such people were sleeping rough; 70 per cent. did not have regular food; and more than half had suffered serious health consequences as a result of being destitute.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Yes, I have seen that survey, and one carried out by the Greater London authority. A similar picture has emerged from every survey that has been conducted.

The other problem is the clogging up of the courts. We were told that, in October last year, about 60 challenges a week were going to the administrative courts, and the judges started to complain bitterly that it was clogging up the system and preventing other business from being dealt with.

I am astonished by the latest development. In the past few days, the Home Office has sent a letter in which it says that unaccompanied asylum seeking children, who might have lived here for some time, will be the subject of section 55 interviews on their 18th birthday—their 18th birthday present might be to lose all benefits and support. The child might even have been in care, so we need to reflect on our duties to children when they leave care. That letter was sent, despite the Home Affairs Committee report that was issued a week or so ago, which criticised what was happening, highlighted serious concerns and urged the Government to review the operation of section 55.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that appalling matter to the House's attention. Any reasonable person reflecting on the issue will view it as an attempt wholly to undermine the Hillingdon judgment, which stated that young asylum seekers who had received benefits under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 would, on attaining adulthood, be eligible for support under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

There are some interesting connections with that judgment. The measures in the letter will apply to children leaving care whose asylum claims have not been decided, rather than those who have been in care and have been given permission to stay.

Finally—I shall be brief because I know other hon. Members want to speak—we should think again about the reasons that people make late asylum claims. I can think of a whole string of reasons. People might have been trafficked or brought in by agents and told to behave in a certain way. Some people might have suffered trauma and understandably do not feel confident about making a claim the moment they step inside the country.

From debates in Committee we know that the Government take the view that people who make late claims make weak claims. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration expressed her view of section 55 by saying:

"We wanted to bring about a change of behaviour on the reasonable assumption that somebody fleeing persecution, or in fear of his life, would want to claim asylum in the safe country in which he had arrived as soon as possible."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 27 January 2004; c. 430.]

Again, the implication is that someone who claims in country is making a weak claim. We have had this debate during every asylum Bill since 1996, and the Home Office's own statistics show that the rate of recognition of asylum claims made within the country for year after year is hardly different from—and in some years exceeds—the rate of recognition for people who apply at port.

What is fundamentally wrong with section 55 is that, like some earlier measures such as vouchers, it penalises the genuine claimant. It was supposed to deter the abusive claimant, but in effect it penalises the genuine claimant. That is why section 55 is so absolutely immoral.

I hope that it might be possible at an appropriate point during this evening's proceedings for a separate Division to be called on new clause 1 or amendment No. 33, which I hope will have the House's support.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:45 pm, 1st March 2004

I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the remarks of Mr. Gerrard. We support new clause 1, and we feel that it is a great pity that it has been included in this group, which rather inhibits full discussion on it. We are particularly concerned about the 18-year-olds whom the hon. Gentleman rather emotionally described. Those possible 18th birthday presents are alarming.

We have already heard about some of the consequences of taking away benefits, or of not giving them in the first place, and we should bear in mind the lessons that we have learned from section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 when considering the proposals in clause 7. The clause is about voluntary departure, and I was very impressed with the carrot approach of Mr. Dawson, who suggested that we do everything we can to persuade people that that is the best course for them. I am aware that there was much discussion in Committee on that, and that the Minister outlined a number of steps to be taken. Surely, however, there can never be enough steps where children are concerned. That is why I rise to speak today.

Clause 7 uses the threat of making families destitute as an enforcement measure. However we look at that, it is a stick—a very crude one—and I greatly fear the unintended consequences of using it. The first will be that the fear of families about how they will survive, and whether they will be separated, will drive them underground. Surely, the health and welfare of all children in this country should be absolutely paramount. This measure seems to deviate from all the principles that most of us are here to defend.

A second unintended consequence might be that some families will feel that they are doing the best thing by leaving their children here. One can easily see that that might happen. We hear about desperation in other countries, and parents who let their children come over with friends and relatives. That desperation exists. We cannot therefore say that the Bill will not have the consequence that children will end up in care: they will end up in care.

That brings me to the iniquitous position that social workers will be in. As I understand it, when a family is destitute, the Children Act 1989 and the professional ethics of those working with the family require social workers to look first to relieve destitution, but clause 7 proposes the opposite. What should social workers do in those circumstances? The framework in clause 7 undermines the professional judgment and skills of social workers, and I can envisage them being put in impossible positions, perhaps being asked to remove children from their parents to increase the pressure on parents to leave the country.

The United Kingdom stopped removing children from their families on the ground of poverty a long time ago. Where, then, are we going with clause 7? I appreciate that Conservative amendments attempt to improve it, but I sincerely believe that the only action to take tonight is to vote for the deletion of the clause. We should remember that we have a proud tradition of caring, including caring for children.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I want to deal first with amendment No. 23, which seeks, as Mrs. Brooke has just said, to delete clause 7. That would mean that we would be unable to withdraw support from families, no matter how much resistance they had shown or how much time and opportunity they had been given to leave the country once their claim had failed. We would therefore be in a very difficult position, both in terms of trying to achieve our policy objective and of explaining to our constituents how we could require people who were not legally in the country to leave but, if they refused to do so, we would have to continue to pay them to stay here indefinitely.

I do not pretend that this is not a difficult issue. I find it very difficult, but, equally, I am absolutely convinced that we would not have a credible policy if we required people to leave when they should, but carried on paying them and providing them with accommodation at the taxpayer's expense when they refused to do so.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I shall give way in a moment.

Briefly, that is the dilemma that we face, and we cannot avoid it simply by saying that we will carry on paying people regardless of their entitlement to be in the country.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Is it not the case that, in this country, we want families to do all sorts of things, and that we achieve that by persuasion and by offering them support? We do not introduce the sanction of removing their benefits. Is it not a counsel of despair, when we are dealing with hard-pressed people who have often been through desperate experiences, to say that the only means of amending their behaviour is to make them destitute?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

That is not my intention. The intention of the clause is to persuade more families than at present that they should work with us to return home voluntarily. They should do so to avoid the potential trauma of an enforced return. I described in Committee how I had been out with an arrest team. The contemplation of immigration officers turning up in the middle of the night, getting children out of their beds and taking them to a centre to be put on a plane as quickly as possible is something that I would want to avoid in all circumstances, if I could.

The process that I outlined in Committee, which would preface the certification allowed in clause 7, is specifically designed to give families every opportunity to work with us voluntarily to ensure that we get as many people as possible to take a voluntary route home.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

What other options have the Government examined in order to try to have their way with returns without having to be too brutal about it?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

We have been examining these issues for some time, and have introduced a range of measures to try to increase the number of people returned. Despite the comments of Mr. Malins, we have achieved considerably more success than his Government ever did, with a record number of returns in 2003. However, we are dealing here with a particular group of people, and hon. Members will remember that in October last year the Home Secretary announced an exercise in which we agreed that families who had been here with children for three years or more from 2 October or before would be given indefinite leave to remain, provided they had no criminal record and met certain basic criteria. That recognised that, for families who have been here for some time, there are real humanitarian issues involved. For example, their children will have been in school, and the families will have become embedded in the community. When we announced that exercise, however, we said at the same time that families who have come into the system more recently and who have failed their asylum claims will have to return home. We will not continue the current practice of paying people indefinitely to stay.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I shall just finish this point.

Alongside the introduction of the clause in Committee, I outlined a process that would ensure that families had every opportunity to work with us. That process contains some of the elements and the spirit of what my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson has proposed—although not the detail; I do not pretend that it contains the range of counselling and other services that he suggested—in the sense that families would be invited for an interview and be able to discuss the options available and the nature of the process from then on. They would then have a series of up to three further letters setting out where they would be in the process, if they failed to co-operate, before certification took place.

I am trying to stress that, if a family turn up to such an interview and co-operate with attempts to make arrangements for them to return, and if they go along and see the International Organisation for Migration or join one of the voluntary return programmes and work with the voluntary workers who are doing that work for us, they will be supported, no matter how long the process takes. If they co-operate with us to explore those voluntary routes, and help us to re-document them and to get the wherewithal to remove them, even if we cannot enforce a removal to a particular country, we will not certify and we will not remove support.

However, if a family fail to turn up to an interview, fail to respond to the letters that we write and do not keep their appointments or speak to the IOM, there will come a point when we have to ask the legitimate question: do we go on paying someone who is behaving like that, when they should be working with us to go home? This is difficult, but there must surely come a point at which people's eligibility to be supported at public expense in the face of their refusal to co-operate must come to an end.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Spokesperson (Social Security (SNP Shadow Scottish Minister); Education & Skills; Home Office; Law Officers; Work & Pensions)

If it was deemed beyond the pale to include families in the withdrawal of support rules at the time of the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, surely it must remain beyond the pale to do so in March 2004.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I have not said that it was beyond the pale in 2002; those are the hon. Lady's words. As I have said, we have been exploring—using a step by step approach—measures that we need to take across the board to ensure that people whose claims fail return home.

The process that I shall implement in relation to clause 7 is not only fair but comprehensive in trying to get families to the point at which they take the voluntary route. As I have said, if they co-operate with us, they will be supported for as long as that process takes. We shall not remove support if they are working with us.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

No, I will not.

Under amendments Nos. 16 and 19, support would be withdrawn from a failed asylum-seeking family 28 days after receipt of the Secretary of State's decision to certify. That period could then be varied under regulations by up to seven days. We discussed this in Committee, and I hope that the hon. Member for Woking will accept that I made it clear then that, although the clause specifies a minimum 14-day period, the earlier stages that I have committed to before certification—which are involved in the process that I have set out—mean that there will be at least 28 days from appeal rights being exhausted to certification, and probably longer in many cases. I hope that he will therefore accept that we do not need to extend that period in the Bill.

Under amendment No. 17, support could be withdrawn from a failed asylum-seeking family only when a copy of the Secretary of State's certificate was sent both to the person involved and their legal representative.

Amendment No. 18 would reflect that by making it clear that a person should be regarded as having received the certificate only on the second day after it is sent, if it has been sent to him and to his legal representative. In Committee, I said that I have no difficulty with that principle but that it was not necessary to put it in the Bill. We will send letters to a legal representative, where there is one. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.

The Government amendments provide for an appeal by a failed asylum seeker to the asylum support adjudicator where the Secretary of State has certified that the family has failed, without reasonable excuse, to take reasonable steps to leave the UK voluntarily. I reiterate that the purpose of clause 7 is to encourage families to leave voluntarily, and I shall set out what the adjudicator might look at in such an appeal. We must remember that the appeal will not prevent removal. It is an appeal against certification, not a reopening of the asylum claim.

In reaching a decision to certify, the Secretary of State will have concluded that the family, without reasonable excuse, had failed to take reasonable steps to leave the UK or to place themselves in a position where they could do so. The adjudicator would look at any arguments put forward by the family as to why they had not done so and whether the Secretary of State was right to conclude that the necessary steps had not been taken. That will provide further confidence in the overall process that we envisage for clause 7 and further reassurance that if support is withdrawn—I expect that to occur in a minority of cases, if any—the decision is the correct one.

The hon. Member for Woking asked about a situation in which we could not enforce removal but a voluntary return was possible. I partly answered him by saying that, even in those circumstances, provided a family were co-operating with us to seek a voluntary route, support would continue and that we would deal with those difficult circumstances case by case.

We do not want families to be separated. We do not want people to be destitute. We want a managed system whereby people leave voluntarily after a fair hearing of their case and where people are clear that they cannot, and should not be able to, expect the state to support them indefinitely, regardless of the merits of their case.

On new clause 1 and amendment No. 33—

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

No, I will not. I thought that my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, who tabled the new clause and the amendment, was trying to intervene. I would have given way to him, but I must respond to the debate if my hon. Friend Mr. Coleman will forgive me.

Section 55 was designed to tackle a situation in which a significant number of people who had been in the country for some time were claiming asylum in order to get support. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow that there were initial problems in the operation of section 55, but we have made changes where these were required and sensible. I hope that he recognises that the new approach whereby people who apply within three days are granted support has made a difference.

In recent weeks, about 50 per cent. of applicants have been given support under section 55 and there has been a considerable improvement in the number of reconsiderations; these are completed in 24 hours in 87 per cent. of cases.

It being two and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

The House proceeded to a Division.

The House having divided: Ayes 82, Noes 444.

Division number 62 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, Etc.) Bill — Give support to failed asylum seekers and their families — rejected

Aye: 82 MPs

No: 444 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 129 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Amendments made: No. 74, in page 8, line 40, after 'of', insert 'a provision of'.

No. 75, in page 8, line 41, after '2002', insert 'other than paragraph 7A'.

No. 76, in page 8, line 42, after 'Schedule', insert 'other than paragraph 7A'.

No. 77, in page 8, line 43, at end insert—

'( ) On an appeal under section 103 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33) against a decision made by virtue of paragraph 7A of Schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (c. 41) the adjudicator may, in particular—

(a) annul a certificate of the Secretary of State issued for the purposes of that paragraph;

(b) require the Secretary of State to reconsider the matters certified.'.—[Mr. Heppell.]