'In section 11(1) of the Children Act 2004 (c.31), after paragraph (m) insert—
"(n) a regional office of the National Asylum Support Service;
(o) the centre manager of an immigration removal centre;
(p) the Chief Immigration Officer at a port of entry.'".— [Damian Green.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 12— Children: exemption from reporting and residence conditions
'After section 3(1) of the Immigration Act 1971 (c. 77) (limited leave to enter or remain) insert—
"(1A) A child making an asylum claim or a human rights claim whilst he is under the age of 18 shall not be subject to the conditions in subparagraphs (1)(c)(iv) and (v) above until he reaches the age of 18.
(1B) For the purposes of this section "asylum claim" and "human rights claim" have the same meaning as in section 113 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (c. 41)."'.
Amendment No. 1, in page 3, line 14, Clause 5, after 'person' insert 'aged 16 or over'.
Amendment No. 36, in page 15, line 37, Clause 30, at end insert—
'(5) In section 4 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 (c. 19) after subsection (5) add—
"(6) If there are reasonable grounds to believe that a person has been the victim of trafficking in human beings, that person shall not be removed from the UK until the process of identifying the person as a victim of an offence has been completed.
(7) If an unaccompanied child is identified as a victim of trafficking, the Secretary of State shall—
(a) provide for representation of the child by a legal guardian, organisation or authority which shall act in the best interests of that child;
(b) take the necessary steps to establish the identity and nationality of the child; and
(c) make every effort to locate the family of the child when the Secretary of State determines that this is in the best interests of the child.
(8) If an individual has been identified as a victim of trafficking the Secretary of State shall allow a recovery and reflection period of not less than 30 days.
(9) During the reflection period established under subsection (8) it shall not be possible to enforce any expulsion order against that person and the Secretary of State shall authorise the persons concerned to stay in the UK."'.
I wish to speak to three of the four amendments in this group and to support my hon. Friend Mr. Steen on amendment No. 36, which I recognise from proceedings in Committee and which seems extremely sensible.
New clause 2 would extend the duty under section 11 of the Children Act 2004 to make arrangements to safeguard and promote children's welfare to those providing services to refugee children and families, specifically immigration removal centres, the National Asylum Support Service and those dealing with refugee children at ports of entry. Section 11 places a duty on relevant agencies providing services to children to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote their welfare in discharge of their normal functions. The services with primary responsibility for the welfare and support of refugee children and their families, including the immigration service, are currently excluded from the otherwise long list of those to whom the duty applies.
Ministers have addressed this issue. The Home Office's consultation paper, "Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children", which was published in February, says:
"Young asylum seekers, whether children in need or looked after children, matter every bit as much as other young people in the context of meeting each and all of the five outcomes of the Every Child Matters framework."
That is not a great piece of prose, but the thinking behind it is extremely good. In this context it is noteworthy, and perhaps alarming, that the Government do not seek to offer refugee children the protection afforded by section 11. Ministers will be aware that the Refugee Children's Consortium campaigned to ensure that refugee children would have the same protection as other children under the section 11 duty. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, whose Chairman I see in his place, has criticised the Government's position, stating:
"the omission of this particular group of children from the institutional arrangements designed to fulfil the State's positive obligations to children under articles 2, 3 and 8 raises the question of whether this gives rise to unjustifiable discrimination in the enjoyment of Convention rights."
In the other place, Ministers argued that the inclusion of the refugee agencies would be overly restrictive. They also argued that in undertaking its primary function, the IND, as it then was, would do things that would be judged as inconsistent with a duty to safeguard and promote welfare.
That is the nub of a debate that has been running for a long time. It is worth going back to first principles. Section 11 of the 2004 Act is not an absolute duty—it simply requires agencies to make arrangements to have regard to the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare when they discharge their functions. As Ministers said in another place:
"We have been very careful in the way in which we have worded this clause: we do not put a duty on agencies that would make them unable to fulfil their primary functions."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 2004; Vol. 662, c. 995.]
Conservative Members certainly do not dispute that the primary function of the immigration service is to ensure effective immigration control, but similarly we would argue, as would everyone, that the primary function of the police is to ensure public order and prevent crime—yet the chief officer of police is included in the section 11 duty. The explanatory notes to the 2004 Act state:
"This duty is intended to ensure that agencies are conscious of the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare in the course of exercising their normal functions."
The analogy is a good one. If the police can be regarded as exercising their proper central functions while having regard to the constraint, it is hard to understand from first principles why immigration bodies should not be able to fulfil their functions while operating under it.
The Refugee Children's Consortium has taken legal advice, which states that section 11 would not prevent the Home Secretary from implementing removal directions for a child or his or her family and would, at most, affect the manner in which the removal occurred. Decent legal advice therefore shows that the exercise of the duty would not damage the proper functions of not only the front-line agencies but Ministers and officials when making the most difficult decisions about removal.
I am sure that the Minister knows that the Children's Commissioner for England has described the refugee services' omission from section 11 as "a great disappointment." He also said that he believes that the exclusions are already having an impact on relations between those who are subject to the duty and those who are not. The Refugee Children's Consortium argues that the standards of safeguarding for that group of children are inadequate. The Minister is a decent and humane man and will not wish children to be made more vulnerable through the lack of the duty, which would not impede the proper function of the immigration service.
In Committee, the Minister tried to assure us. He made the point that a wider debate was going on, and that discussions were taking place between the children's champion in the immigration and nationality directorate and the Children's Commissioner for England about the way in which the IND could be subject to section 11. He said that he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions, but he would explore what information he could provide at the earliest opportunity. Now is his chance not only to provide the information but to change the Government's stance on the issue. I am clearly not alone in my view. A wide coalition of interests argues that the Government are simply wrong about the matter.
New clause 12 tries to probe the Government. It would ensure that conditions for residence and reporting were not imposed on someone who claimed asylum or protection under the Human Rights Act 1998 when under 18 and who had been granted leave to remain as a refugee or given humanitarian protection or discretionary leave. Clause 16 gives the Secretary of State power to impose reporting and residence requirements on those with discretionary leave, humanitarian protection and refugee leave. It provides for conditions such as curfews or a requirement to live in a specific location.
On Second Reading, the Minister said that he intended initially to apply the measure to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The document that the Government published on
The House is most grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest in the Bill and the amendments that he has tabled. What does he believe to be the purpose of the consultation paper? Does he agree that it should not be implemented until the consultation period has expired, all parties have given their views and the Government have had time to consider them?
It is up to the Minister to explain the purpose of the consultation. However, my hon. Friend's underlying point is correct. A consultation that takes place during—in some cases, after—the passage of a relevant measure, so that we cannot possibly have responded to it, suggests bad process. Indeed, Ministers cannot properly respond because it is not yet finished. The only consolation that I can give my hon. Friend is that all experience tells us that, just as one immigration Bill passes to the other place and on to the statute book eventually, so another one will come along soon. We have had five such Bills in the past 10 years and we have already been half promised a consolidation Bill next year. One point made in Committee that cannot be made often enough is that quite a lot of the serious parts of previous immigration legislation have not yet been implemented—even while we debate and pass the current Bill. I can well imagine that large parts of this Bill will not have been implemented by the time the next immigration Bill comes along. That is not in any way to defend the way in which the Government do these things.
To provide a more detailed answer, my understanding is that, in future, children and young people will receive only limited leave until they are 17 and a half in order that any further applications that they wish to make can be concluded before they become 18. The Government's hope is that that will have the effect of making many more young people liable to enforced return immediately on turning 18. The reporting and residence requirements in the new clause are intended to support that approach by providing additional mechanisms to monitor those young people in the period running up to their 18th birthday, when they can expect to be removed.
The contention made by the Refugee Children's Consortium—and the question that the Minister has to address—is that that approach will not achieve its intended aims. Children who seek asylum alone in this country are often very vulnerable and, whether or not they meet the 1951 convention criteria, many will have a real fear of returning and do not consider it a realistic option. We can debate what should happen in principle to such children, but the practical point that I hope the Minister will address is that, faced with these additional residence and reporting requirements, large numbers of children will simply disappear from care and go on to the streets. We all know that if that happens, they are more likely to face danger and possible sexual or economic exploitation. In that case, the Government would not only fail to achieve their aim of removing more young people when they reach 18, but place more children in the way of moral or physical harm. I cannot believe that the Minister wants to achieve that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very comprehensive and informative reply, which I am sure the whole House will have enjoyed listening to as much as I did, but can he help me a little more on the question of being 17 and a half? It seems to have sinister overtones, which I do not fully understand. I wonder whether my hon. Friend fully understands the significance of being 18. Once young people are 18, for example, do they have more rights than they did at 17 and a half? On the question of disappearance, is my hon. Friend aware of the ECPAT report—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—which showed that 48 children in the care of three local authorities disappeared last year? Will the Bill help?
I am indeed aware of that report and my contention is that the Bill may actually make things worse. To answer the first part of my hon. Friend's question, no, these young people do not get more rights at 18. At 18 they can be deported and the Government are trying to ensure that they know where they are for the six months leading up to their 18th birthdays so that they are easier to deport. My problem with that is that I do not believe that the Government's actions will make it any more likely that any individual will be there to be deported. Indeed, it is more likely that they will disappear earlier, putting themselves into danger.
Therefore, my objection to the provision is not a principled one but a practical one. It will achieve exactly the reverse of what the Government are seeking to do. To that extent, I agree with the Refugee Children's Consortium that such an attempt to legislate for open-ended reporting and residence requirements for these children will not work, and that the Government's rationale is inadequate. The Children Act duties on social services are sufficient to ensure that the children are cared for and protected and that their whereabouts are known. The additional reporting and residence requirements will be counter-productive for the Government and, perhaps even more importantly, for the children themselves.
Amendment No. 1 would exclude those under 16 from having to have biometric immigration documents. I suspect that there might not be much appetite for another full-scale debate on biometric documents just at the moment, but we shall certainly have such debates again and again in the coming years. The problem is that the provisions in the Bill are age-neutral. It is widely agreed, even by Ministers, that collecting and using biometric data from children is difficult and impractical. A study carried out for the Dutch Government found that the
"facial changes taking place up to the age of 12 are so marked that face recognition is not possible without highly sophisticated software and the considerable expense that goes with it."
In relation to fingerprints, the same document goes on to state that
"the papillary ridges on the fingers are not sufficiently developed to allow biometric capture and analysis until the age of six."
During earlier stages of the Bill, we held some very helpful evidence sessions, which were attended by experts including Professor Ross Anderson from Cambridge university. He said that
"fingerprint technology is certainly not good enough if you are matching one population against another, say 90 million people a year arriving at Heathrow versus 60 million people in the UK. You will get absolutely swamped by false matches." ——[Official Report, UK Borders Public Bill Committee,
So, as a subset of the general problem with using fingerprints for such recognition, there is a particular problem relating to children that makes their use even more unreliable.
I hope that the Minister will be able to address the practicalities of the proposal. In particular, I hope that he will provide us with information about the cost of the software required to calculate age-related changes in biometric information, and tell us how that requirement will be funded. Will he also set out the frequency of registration to which under-16s would be subject for the purposes of maintaining a biometric immigration document? Again, I believe that the practicalities will tell against the Government's aims in this field.
I shall leave it to my hon. Friend Mr. Steen to bring to the debate on amendment No. 36 his considerable expertise and campaigning skills in this area.
The hon. Gentleman cited the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the treatment of asylum seekers. The evidence that we on the Committee saw and heard, directly and indirectly, made the case very strongly that the convention should apply to asylum seekers' children and to other children equally. We took evidence from a head teacher, whose view was that there should not be two children in the same class with different rights. One of the issues that we identified was the difficulty of establishing the age of asylum seekers' children. We were particularly concerned about the use of dental X-rays, and suggested that a more holistic approach should be adopted in that regard. Would the hon. Gentleman care to say something about that?
We were very concerned about the quality of care provided by some local authorities, and about the need for much more specialist training and awareness of the particular concerns facing asylum seekers' children, which were not being addressed. The hon. Gentleman raised that point in the context of reporting.
I am grateful for all those interventions. The hon. Gentleman's Committee has done much valuable work. I have seen, as he has, evidence suggesting that dental records are not the panacea that Ministers once hoped that they would be. In all conscience, it is difficult to determine a teenager's age, within two years, on the basis of dental records. Clearly, a difference of two years might be crucial. It seems sensible to use some kind of dental evidence, but perhaps in conjunction with other evidence.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right that the standard of care provided by local authorities is variable. I would speak up particularly for those most exposed local authorities, which are often overwhelmed, and which find that central Government's financial regime has become less generous in recent years. The borough of Hillingdon, with Heathrow airport in its area, has huge problems in that regard, and I have great sympathy with it and its council tax payers, who must ultimately pick up a large share of the bill for what we all recognise is essentially a national rather than a local issue.
We all agree that we need a fast, efficient, effective and humane asylum system. The problem is that the Government are now so desperate to appear tough on asylum and immigration that, in some parts of their policy, they are in danger of losing touch with basic humanity. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that that is not the case.
In Committee, we had a full and frank discussion of the new powers granted to immigration officers under the Bill. The Minister gave a number of assurances, especially with regard to the training and support that immigration officers will receive to implement the new powers. When we raised the issue of asylum-seeking children, he also stated that he was entering discussions with the Children's Commissioner about making sure that asylum-seeking children were covered by the provisions. When he responds, I hope that he will update us on those discussions.
We, and certainly the Refugee Children's Consortium, believe that it is an anomaly that immigration officers are not covered by the provisions. We do not see why the Government cannot accept the new clause, which does not impose new restrictions or make the job of immigration officers more difficult. It does ensure, however, that asylum-seeking children are subject to the same safeguards as all other children. Clearly, as Mr. Dismore said in reference to his report, it is wrong that two children in the same classroom should be subject to different levels of safeguards. I hope that the Minister will accept the new clause.
With regard to new clause 12, on reporting and residence arrangements, as I said in Committee I do not see what particular expertise immigration officers have in relation to looking after young children. The Minister said then that he wanted to ensure that a relationship developed between immigration officers and asylum-seeking children to facilitate their speedy removal. I ask him now to consider what advantages that process has over the existing arrangements under which local authority social services and education departments deal with such children.
I have personal experience of asylum-seeking children who have been subject to all sorts of trauma in their home countries. Some have witnessed horrendous murders, and some may well have been abused themselves. Now officers with no training or expertise in dealing with such issues as child abuse are to be asked to build up a relationship. What will that achieve? I do not think it will facilitate the speedy removal of asylum-seeking children. I believe that that can be done through local authorities and National Asylum Support Service officers who, in Rochdale at any rate, are employed by the local authority and have a day-to-day relationship with families seeking asylum. That, I believe, is the best way to ensure that any provisions relating to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are implemented. I fear that if the residence and reporting arrangements are enforced, perhaps clumsily, many children will disappear—which is not the object of the exercise—or put themselves in a position in which they are in someone else's control, without particularly wanting that to happen. In that event, they might be subjected to all sorts of horrendous acts.
The aim of the new clause is to prevent young people under 18 from being subject to the reporting restrictions. In Committee the Minister gave us no explanation of how the restrictions would apply, and how they would affect such things as education. I asked him then whether young children would have to report to the centre. In the case of Greater Manchester, it would be the Salford centre. What would be the effect of a monthly trip to Salford from Rochdale? Might it not disrupt the child's education?
We believe that the restrictions are not necessary, and that the controls the Minister wants can be provided through better use of existing local authority arrangements—for instance, through the Immigration Advisory Service.
Let me now deal with amendment No. 1. As Damian Green pointed out, we have had a number of discussions about biometrics. The Government have allowed themselves everything including the kitchen sink in terms of the information that they want to be stored about people. The plain fact is that, as evidence has shown, fingerprints and facial expressions do not provide reliable measurements.
We tabled an amendment in Committee suggesting that if the Government insisted on using biometrics, they should note evidence suggesting that eye biometrics were the most stable. We believe that the safest course in lieu of that amendment, which was rejected, is to ensure that children under 16 are not subjected to biometrics. In a family context, the process can be dealt with through the children's parents. I hope that the Minister will reconsider his position, especially on new clause 2 as it would ensure that asylum-seeking children were treated the same as every other child.
I was not planning to speak in the debate, but as Mr. Steen, who tabled amendment No. 36, is not in the Chamber I shall try, as Chair of the Human Rights Committee, to step into his not insubstantial shoes to talk about people trafficking.
My criticism of amendment No. 36 is that it does not go far enough. It seems to put in statutory form the requirements of the European convention against trafficking in human beings, which the Government have already agreed to sign. I am pleased that they accepted the recommendation of my Committee to that effect when we produced our report in the autumn, but signing does not go far enough; the treaty must be properly ratified not just by the United Kingdom but by other countries to make sure that it comes into effect.
Amendment No. 36 would recognise and protect the victims of people trafficking, which is reckoned the second most serious international crime after the drugs trade. It is organised crime, involving large numbers of people and huge amounts of money. Several years ago, the Government admitted that 4,000 women had been trafficked for sexual purposes, but that figure is now widely seen to be an underestimate. Having met victims of people trafficking through the Poppy project and heard evidence about that crime, I have no doubt that the provisions of the amendment are important.
It is important that the victims of trafficking are recognised as such at a sufficiently early stage for them to be protected, and that they are not faced with arbitrary removal, as has been the case for some of them in the past. When a brothel is raided everybody is rounded up—victims of people trafficking and traffickers alike. That has to stop.
The convention makes specific provision for unaccompanied children who are trafficked, as set out in subsection (5) of the amendment. Their interests must be represented in the legal process through a guardian; the children must be properly identified and efforts made to locate their family back home.
However, what is important is the question of recovery and reflection, which the amendment, unfortunately, does not define. Recovery and reflection are about putting the interests of the victims of trafficking first—making them paramount in the process. For example, a woman may have been the victim of multiple rape over a prolonged period. Recovery and reflection would give such victims the time to come to terms with what happened to them and the support and counselling they needed to address those appalling experiences, and then to decide the extent to which they could co-operate with the authorities in bringing the perpetrators of their trafficking to justice. On the evidence we heard in the Select Committee, the period of 30 days specified in the amendment, which is the period in the convention, is far too short. It is important that victims are given the chance to have a period of reflection before action is taken on their removal.
As I said, my main concern is that the amendment does not go far enough in protecting victims, to make sure that there is support for them not only through organisations such as the Poppy project but also in the criminal justice process so that their immigration status is dealt with properly. When I met a woman from eastern Europe, through the Poppy project, I was appalled to hear that her trafficker had been convicted and served a lengthy prison sentence, yet her immigration status had still not been favourably determined. That cannot be right and it is an example of what needs to be done.
We must make sure that when the victims of trafficking come to light they are properly supported to resettle either in our country or in their country of origin. If they are returned, they should be rehabilitated effectively and properly. At the Poppy project, we heard of one poor woman who had been returned to her country without proper support and retrafficked within 48 hours by her family.
The amendment is important. It adds to the legislation on immigration and asylum some of the protections provided in the convention, which the Government have now agreed to sign. However, it does not go far enough. I hope that in responding to this brief debate the Minister will give a commitment that the Government will seriously tackle this matter, not necessarily with legislation but on the back of the convention that they have so properly at long last agreed to accept.
I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I feel prompted to do so by the contributions made so far. I apologise to my hon. Friend Damian Green for not being present in the Chamber when he moved the new clause; I was attending a Select Committee sitting. However, I know from experience that my hon. Friend has great concern for the welfare of children in the circumstances under discussion, and it is proper to have such concern. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the Government are dealing with children in as humane a fashion as possible and taking their interests into account.
I make no secret of the fact that I have many wide-ranging criticisms of the asylum system. I recognise that many people try to use the system as a means of facilitating their migration to this country when they do not have a proper asylum claim. However, I also recognise that a substantial number of people do have genuine claims for asylum, and we must bear in mind their interests as well. Looking at the system in the world as a whole, I find it hard to see a thread of consistent logic in how it operates, particularly in conjunction with the carriers' liability provisions that this country has adopted.
However, almost all decisions to come to this country—whether for reasons of economic migration or because somebody is genuinely fleeing persecution—are taken by adults. They are not taken by children. When children arrive here and are unaccompanied, we owe them a special duty of consideration—seeing things from their point of view and recognising some of the experiences that they might have been through. Whenever a child is unaccompanied by an adult, we must do as much as we properly can to ensure their welfare. My hon. Friend made his points on that very well.
I do not intend to discuss some of the legal arguments to do with the various obligations that countries have or those that we seek to place on local authorities and others. However, I know that the Minister is genuinely engaged with this subject, and I seek an assurance from him that the Government are conforming to the highest humanitarian standards in dealing with such children. The public would expect that of us, irrespective of how we might feel about other parts of the asylum system.
I am grateful to Members for having tabled the new clauses and amendments in this group, so that we have had the opportunity to debate on Report another subject on which we spent a considerable amount of time in Committee. Members of all parties have made representations to me during my happy months as immigration Minister—and I have spent nearly a year in this post now. The fact that they have done so underlines the point that the House takes this issue very seriously, and it is proper that on Report we should have a debate such as this.
We must strike a balance. On the one hand we must ensure that, as Mr. Clappison said, unaccompanied children are given the right level of protection when they come into contact with us in this country and come under our care. On the other hand, we also have a duty to ensure that the deportation of children who have no right to be here and whom it is perfectly safe to remove does not become so difficult that in effect a green light is switched on for every child trafficker around the world.
The Government and the Public Bill Committee have put considerable effort into ensuring that the Bill contains a number of new measures that make it easier to track down people smugglers and human traffickers, wherever on earth they perpetrate their crimes. It would be unfortunate if we ended up with a Bill that in any way encouraged that barbaric trade by making it so difficult to remove people who have no right to be here that Britain became a target.
Our starting point is a protocol that it is perfectly right that our Government should carry on implementing. We did not invent it; it was devised and explained to this House by a Conservative immigration Minister back in the early 1990s. The point is that when such children become adults, it is important for us to ensure that they go back home when a court has said that it is safe for them to do so. Otherwise, it is impossible to maintain the integrity of the immigration system—a sentiment that was well reflected by the hon. Member for Hertsmere.
I am proud to say that this Government have helped to lead the way in Europe on this subject. During our EU presidency we pushed through the EU action plan on human trafficking. When we established the Serious Organised Crime Agency, we made sure that four of the 20 work programmes pursued by it related to tackling trafficking. After considerable debate, we published in March the UK trafficking action plan, which provides an holistic approach to prevention, prosecution and support. Last year we established the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre—a facility that a number of Members have visited. Of course, this year we signed the Council of Europe convention on human trafficking—a subject about which I feel very strongly, not least because my predecessor as MP for Birmingham, Hodge Hill is now the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe.
I shall discuss the amendments and new clauses in reverse order, as the first to which I want to speak is amendment No. 36. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore for ensuring that we would debate it, and I agree with him that it does not go far enough. In effect, it picks out parts of the convention and seeks to put them into effect through the Bill. Of course, the problem is that incomplete implementation would create risks in different parts of the system. For example, the amendment does not deal with how people get support, or how victims of human trafficking under forced labour provisions might be protected.
We want to ensure that the convention is not implemented in an incomplete fashion; we do not want to drop defences, thereby creating a pull factor. Crucially, we want to ensure protections for all victims of trafficking. I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon the commitment that we will implement the convention, but not in a half-and-half way. That is why we have said that we will ratify it only when we are absolutely confident that we can implement it in full. A project team has been established at the Home Office that is reviewing what training and legislation is required, what legislation is required of other Government Departments, and what support arrangements need to be put in place not just by the Government but by local authorities.
I understand that some 35 countries have signed the convention, that seven have ratified it and that Germany is shortly to sign. Once 10 countries have ratified it, it will effectively be in force. However, it is important for this Government to ensure that when we choose to ratify it, we can implement it in full. Otherwise, I fear that signature and ratification will be dismissed—rightly—as a token gesture.
I am grateful to the Government for the very positive response that we received to our report last autumn. When does the Minister expect the work to which he has just referred to be completed, and when will the Government be in a position to implement the requirements of the convention?
I am unable to give my hon. Friend reassurance on the time scale this afternoon. I am more than happy to ensure that, either on an individual basis or through the Committee that he chairs, which has taken a close interest in this subject, the Home Office provides regular updates on the timetable and the progress against it, so that we have proper scrutiny and monitoring of an issue of some interest to all hon. Members.
I apologise for not being here to speak in support of my amendment, but I was occupied in two other places. I hoped to be here in time, but unfortunately my colleagues did not speak for long enough.
We are all in favour of the Council of Europe, and we are grateful to the Minister for his interest in getting the convention signed, but how does that square with the consultation paper suggestions, which propose giving children far fewer rights than suggested by the convention? The two appear to be on a collision course. Is that how the Minister sees it—and if not, will he explain why not?
I am happy to do that, because I see no collision course, and my staff spent some time on the report before it was issued, which is why it was slightly late. I wanted to ensure that it had proper consideration at the right levels of seniority within the Home Office. The consultation document tries to flush out a couple of ideas, but none is more important than new measures to ensure that we do not have children in the adult care system or—even more importantly—that we do not have adults in the children's system. That is why age testing is so important.
There are measures in place that may provide certainty to plus or minus five years, but if we were to rely on them we would open ourselves to the risk of having adults in the children's system, and that is not something that I would be prepared to countenance knowingly. Therefore it is incumbent on us to explore any opportunity to improve the accuracy of age testing. I know that there is controversy over the use of dental X-rays and other methods, and I am grateful for the tone that Damian Green struck. It is incumbent on us to try to make an imprecise science as precise as we can.
The second group of measures on which we are trying to solicit views through the consultation document concerns the care arrangements available for children. As the hon. Gentleman said, those are concentrated in London at present. That means that boroughs such as Hillingdon, where I have met the directors, shoulder an unfair burden. If we encouraged different local authorities in various parts of the country to become specialists in the provision of such care, we could manage some of the pressures in London better and improve the overall care that we can offer unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That is why I stress that the document is a consultation document. It has been put together with good intentions, and it contains open questions. I encourage hon. Members to respond to it.
The consultation document does not contain any particular question, policy or direction of travel that requires legislation to underpin or implement it. Efforts to strengthen the support that we provide for children will undergo incremental improvement over the next few years. The reform plan for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is one part of that, and the Council of Europe convention is another. There will be others, and we must keep the spotlight constantly on the issue, so that any opportunity to improve care is taken up.
I was concerned about articles 10 and 13 of the convention, which provide the victim with assistance and protection. The Minister is clearly satisfied that the consultation paper will not conflict with those objectives, but why have the Government refused to lift the reservation on the UN convention on the rights of the child? That is about giving children protection. The Government keep saying that the convention might conflict with domestic legislation, but what domestic legislation? It would be marvellous if the Government took the lead on that convention.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I shall address that precise matter in my remarks on a later amendment. However, I shall first pick up some points made by the hon. Member for Ashford about biometric immigration documents. I have somewhat lost track of where he stands in the debates about Europe that often surface in his party, and I cannot remember whether he would be influenced by the fact that the European Commission is about to introduce requirements for biometric residence permits. I understand that from this week that requirement will apply to third-country national children aged six and over—something that may appeal to some in the Conservative party, although it may not cut much ice with others.
Two important arguments support the issuing of biometric immigration documents to children. The first is that that will help us tackle trafficking. I shall pray in aid a contribution that I solicited from the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which
"views biometrics as having great potential as a tool for law enforcement to effect identity, recovery and rescue of child victims of trafficking. Having biometric details of children means that when you encounter a victim you can identify and rescue them from whatever form of exploitation they are suffering."
We have sought to introduce biometrics in two ways. First, we have issued biometric visas abroad, a process that allows us to pin down the relationship between the child and a particular adult, and to capture the child's biometrics at that time. We have successfully issued 5,500 biometric visas to children, and by the end of the year they will be issued at all our visa posts abroad.
When a child applies for further leave in-country, we can check the child's biometrics again, and determine that the family coming along with the child is the same as the one that was with the child when the application for the biometric visa was made. An alarm is triggered if there are discrepancies. I do not understand why we would want to turn that alarm system off, as I consider it an important step forward.
The second argument for biometric checks is that in the long term, they will help us to tackle fraud. Their introduction will help us to govern and police access by third-country nationals to the benefits system. Capturing the biometrics of children allows us to stop the deplorable crime of child swapping, whereby a child is placed with a family to try to improve that family's eligibility for benefits. The ability to pin down a child's biometrics on our systems and place that child with a family will give us a way to tackle problems of that sort.
I know that questions have been asked about unstable biometrics. The problems that arise have less to do with capturing the biometrics than with the matching software. The report about the costs of biometrics will be laid before the House shortly, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Ashford will be delighted to hear. In answer to his specific question about frequency of registration, I can tell him that it is currently envisaged that people will be asked to come back after about five years.
The Minister will be aware that there is growing concern about the very little children, particularly from Asia and Africa, who are being brought in for the purposes of slavery and paedophile activity. They are also being brought in for what are called muti rituals, in which a child is killed for religious purposes. I heard what the Minister said, but his remarks do not apply to those children. We do not really know what we are facing in that regard, so what approach has he taken to obtaining the relevant statistics? When he has got them, will he be able to follow up and do whatever is required, including introducing primary legislation? Finally, what does he have in mind to tackle the problem that I have described? The answer that he has just given does not touch it.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has long taken an interest in these matters. We have to try to stop the trade in the first place, so the Bill, which introduces new offences to tackle people trafficking, is an important step forward. Issuing biometric visas helps us to lock down an identity to an individual. All that we are doing in the Bill, through our provisions for biometric immigration documents, is making sure that when a child applies for further leave to remain, or if a child is going to be here for some time, there is a cross-check against the original biometric information. That provides us not with a complete answer, but with another tool to help us discover where things are going wrong. The argument against the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford is: why would we throw that alarm system away? Surely it is better to build tools up over time, rather than to lose them.
Before I come on to the debate about section 11 of the Children Act 2004 and contact management, I should say that I understand the argument that the Refugee Children's Consortium has put forward, but it sounds a little strange for people to say that an insistence on contact may drive people underground, when at the moment we have no legal means of establishing contact at all. It is important to be able to contact children at regular intervals in order to know whether they are still in the country, where they are, whether they are being looked after properly, and, often, to acquaint them with the prospect that they will be going home again soon. I do not pretend that this is a complete answer, but it is another important tool that the immigration service would find useful.
I might be able to be helpful to the Minister, but I need an explanation. The Minister is familiar with the unaccompanied and separated children and refugee projection in the UK report "Seeking Asylum Alone" by Jacqueline Bhabha and Nadine Finch. The report shows that there is a difference between the Home Office figures for applications from unaccompanied and separated children and the statistics provided by the Refugee Council's children's panel. There are big discrepancies. In 2003 the Home Office figure was 2,800 and the Refugee Council's children's panel figure was 4,658. I wonder whether the Minister could indicate, bearing in mind that the Government grant only 6 per cent. of asylum applications from unaccompanied children a year—94 per cent. get sent back—
I would be more than happy to look at those discrepancies and to spend as much time with the hon. Gentleman as is required to try to get to the bottom of that matter.
I was talking about the need to maintain contact arrangements with children, particularly when they do not have the right to be here. While honouring our commitment not to send children home when, in our view, the reception arrangements are not appropriate, it is important that we make arrangements to send them home as soon as it is safe to do so.
I now come to the debate about section 11 of the Children Act 2004, which was where the hon. Member for Ashford started. This is an important area and we have spent some time reviewing it over the last 12 months. The nub of the problem is that the section 11 duty is not a simple duty. There are two parts to it. On the one hand there is a duty to safeguard the child, but on the other there is a duty to promote the child's well-being. The Department for Education and Skills guidance that comes with the duty is clear. It says that the duty is to make arrangements to ensure that
"children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care".
It also mentions:
"undertaking that role so as to enable those children to have optimum life chances and to enter adulthood successfully".
The analogy with the police is helpful, because the police do not seek to deport people to third world countries. Although our advice is that, legally, we would win the cases—I am sure that the refugee children's organisations have gone to some good lawyers to solicit advice and ascertain that there are no barriers to the Home Secretary setting removal directions—unfortunately, that is only part of the story. My great fear is that there would be a licence for judicial review to multiply. One can easily see that lawyers could file judicial reviews challenging decisions and arguing about a Home Office decision to deport somebody to the Democratic Republic of the Congo or parts of south-east Asia. I think that lawyers would question how that would be consistent with the duty to enable those children to have optimum life chances and enter adulthood successfully.
Judicial review presents a serious problem: between January and March this year we received an average of 79 judicial reviews a week challenging enforcement activity. Some 94 per cent. were refused permission at the paper stage; none the less, one ongoing case has been running for 12 months and is on its second judicial review. Another case has been running for 14 months and is on its fourth judicial review, while a further case has been running for seven months and is on its third judicial review. People often try to exploit the judicial review process as a last-minute barrier to removal. I fear that the change to section 11 proposed by the hon. Member for Ashford would simply multiply those barriers.
While I understand what the Minister is telling us, he also says that it is not the intention to deport, or send home, children at least until they become adults. The provision would not apply after people reached the age of 18, so I do not understand why they cannot be subject to section 11 of the Children Act 2004 while they are children in the UK, which is all that we want.
We will often be making arrangements to send those people home. I simply do not understand how anyone cannot envisage that in judicial review proceedings, lawyers would make the argument that I cited. The proposal would lead to the multiplication of judicial review proceedings.
This is a serious matter. It is important to go further than we have to date on the Border and Immigration Agency's duty to safeguard the welfare and livelihood of children. I said in Committee that we were keeping the matter under review. This summer the agency will publish its safeguarding strategy, which has been drawn up in close consultation with children's organisations. If the Bill is enacted, we will commission advice from the new inspectorate about how it can examine specifically the way in which the safeguarding strategy is implemented, so that we can ensure two things. The first is that the strategy is actually working, with policy being translated into practice. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore, has helpfully and successfully highlighted instance after instance when policy has not been translated into practice, which explains why the single inspectorate is important. The second is that hon. Members, and the wider public, have an assurance that the safeguarding duty is being implemented properly.
We can make important changes. While the point about transparency is particularly important, we need to continue to listen to the argument about how a specific and appropriate legal obligation could underpin the safeguarding responsibilities of the border and immigration authority in a way that would not multiply the grounds for judicial review, but would ensure that hon. Members' ambitions were achieved.
I am listening carefully to the Minister's explanation. He cited an example involving the DRC. Given that that is an unsafe place, we would not deport anyone to that country, whether they were under 18 or over 18. The section 11 safeguards would not be affected in such circumstances. As I understand the way in which the system operates at the moment, an asylum seeker will not be sent back to an unsafe country.
That is absolutely right. I am trying to make the point that the section 11 duty is about not simply safeguarding, but enabling
"children to have optimum life chances and to enter adulthood successfully".
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the DRC is the size of western Europe. There are places in the DRC to which the asylum and immigration tribunal has consistently found it very safe to return people. However, one can easily envisage how a cunning and clever lawyer could look at the part of the obligation that I cited and question how deporting a child from the world's fourth largest economy would promote optimum life chances or help that child to enter adulthood successfully. That is my fear. I do not think that anyone in the House would want us to remove defences in a way that prevents us from deporting people successfully. I genuinely think that hon. Members understand that if defences are weaker, Britain will become a target for child traffickers, and no one in the House wants that.
We need to go further in ensuring that the Border and Immigration Agency has a stronger safeguarding obligation. I have sketched out a couple of ways in which I think that that can be brought about, but I remain open to the argument that a legal requirement should be put on the BIA, and a specific safeguarding element should be written into the law. I have yet to be convinced of that, and I do not think that the answer is in section 11 of the Children Act 2004—but when the Bill goes to another place there will still be a case to be listened to and answered.
I start my response to this extremely good debate by apologising to my hon. Friend Mr. Steen. I knew that he was going to be unavoidably detained elsewhere, but I had not realised for how short a time. If I had, I would have explored the issue in even greater depth. I assure him that I have now had one unprecedented experience this afternoon: sitting down at the end of a speech and being criticised for having made it too short. I am grateful to him for that. I can reassure him that his case was made most eloquently by Mr. Dismore.
To pick up on some of the Minister's points, I thought that he was pushing the envelope a little in saying that the Government were leading in Europe on the fight against trafficking. As he will be aware, the Government made the good move of signing up to the Council of Europe convention rather later than many Governments did. He was right to say that the Government do not want to ratify the convention until they can actually implement it, because we have had enough of gesture politics from the Government, both in that field and in others. I find it refreshing that the Minister is seeking to avoid that, but I point out, as he did, that seven countries have already ratified the convention, and when 10 countries ratify it it will come into force, so it is likely to come into force soon. At that point, the Government will presumably start implementing it. I thought it slightly ominous that he could not give the hon. Member for Hendon any reassurance about the timing, and could not say when the Government will be in a position to do something practical and useful in that respect.
I am grateful for that. Ambition for accuracy is a good thing in Ministers. The Minister's central point was about striking a balance between the protection of children and the protection of the interests of the Executive, which should not be tied down with judicial reviews. I found his argument on that point beguiling, but it was not convincing, because the Government have had a long time to think about the subject. They have known what the refugee children's organisations and others think about the issue for a long time. It is not wholly convincing for the Government to come before the House on Report, after a long Committee stage, and say, "We're looking into the matter, and we may bring forward appropriate measures, but not those supported by both main Opposition parties and the organisations concerned. We'll come up with better measures during the later stages of the Bill." The Government have had a long time to consider the issue, and they have not yet found any other measures.
I would hate to miss this opportunity to register the point that underlies all our discussions, which is that the current arrangements are not satisfactory. Indeed, what the Minister said this afternoon made it clear that he does not think that they are satisfactory either, and is looking for better ways to protect the rights of refugee children. If he cannot come up with concrete proposals at our final opportunity to discuss the Bill before it proceeds to another place, it is for other parties to submit such proposals to protect those children. That is what we have done, and we commend our proposals to the House.
Is not my hon. Friend's concern—indeed, the Opposition's concern—about the fact that many thousands of unaccompanied minors arrive somehow or other in the country every year at airports and ports? I do not know how they get here. The Government are then expected to finance their care in local authorities, provide legal aid, food and shelter—but then what? Does my hon. Friend believe that something needs to be said about how we are going to manage better those thousands and thousands of children who are still pouring into Britain? Certainly we are not doing enough at the moment.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. One of the things that the Government have failed to do is make our borders secure enough so that people traffickers and other evil criminals are not encouraged to try to smuggle children into this country. That brings us on to a debate about our proposals for a border police force, which is the most effective way of minimising the effects of that particularly repellent crime—but I suspect that you would pull me up, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I went too far down that road, because it is not strictly relevant to this group of amendments.
Finally, the Minister talked about the European Commission and biometric documents for children. Whether the proposals are introduced by the Commission or by central Government, if biometrics for children do not work—all the technical evidence suggests that they do not—those documents will be ineffective in protecting them. I am relaxed about whether the proposals come from the Commission or from the Home Office; they will not work in either case. In summary, I have not found the Minister's arguments that we should wait for the Government to come up with a convincing way of protecting children at all persuasive, however well he put them, so I commend the new clause to the House.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The House proceeded to a Division.