Along with many others, we in the SNP have been arguing for months that the UK should take a fair share of refugees and asylum seekers from Europe in the face of the ongoing humanitarian crisis. We are therefore glad the Government have now apparently accepted that principle, albeit up to a point. They have finally listened to the arguments from the different parties and from a host of campaign groups and charities, and we cautiously welcome that change of heart.
Indeed, last week, in Westminster Hall, the Minister himself made a persuasive case for a fairer distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That was in the context of a debate on children already in the UK and was a call for solidarity with the citizens of Kent, where many unaccompanied children have arrived. We on these Benches support that call for responsibility to be shared across the UK, but we want the same logic applied on a European level.
Like others across the House, we will monitor progress carefully to ensure that the new policy is implemented in the spirit of the amendment from Lord Dubs. For example, it is vital, as others have said, that the cut-off date does not rule out protection for the many children who have been in Europe since before that date but who have never been registered, and I welcome the reassurances the Minister has given this evening. Equally, as others have said, the support offered to local authorities must be sufficient to allow them to feel able to become involved in the new programme, so that the numbers taken on represent a genuine attempt to play our part. We will also look for the Scottish Government to be closely involved in overseeing the necessary processes in Scotland and for the Scottish Guardianship Service to have the support it needs to play its part.
However, as the Opposition spokesperson said—this is probably most important of all—it is essential that action is fast. As all hon. Members who have visited camps across Europe will know, the conditions these children are living in are horrendous. We need the Immigration Minister back in the House to update us within weeks, rather than months.
If implemented properly and generously, the Government’s decision will be looked back on warmly and, indeed, even as a matter of pride—people will only wonder, “Why the delay?” However, there is a long way to go before we reach that point.
On the remaining, unresolved issues, the Government have come up short again. On amendment 84, their lordships are absolutely right to insist on a general rule that immigration detention should not last longer than 28 days. This is a modest amendment; as I said when the Bill was last here, it moves us towards a time limit, rather than creating an absolute limit, because of various exceptions. However, their lordships’ reasoning for insisting on the amendment is absolutely right, because the Government’s alternative is even further from being a proper time limit on immigration detention—it simply adds an automatic bail hearing after four months.
Every now and then, we have hints from the Government that they are waking up to the fact that policy and practice on immigration detention in the UK is draconian, unnecessary and expensive. There are occasional suggestions of a change in approach, but proposed reform is simply far too slow. Far from representing a brave new policy dawn, what the Government are asking us to put into legislation barely even reflects what is supposed to already be their policy—a presumption in favour of temporary admission or release and the use, wherever possible, of alternatives to detention.
In short, the right to liberty continues to be badly undermined—all for the administrative convenience of the Home Office. The Government have failed each time to explain why, in contrast to every single other EU country, the UK cannot operate within the confines of a proper time limit. We will continue to support the Lords amendment as a step in the right direction.
On amendment 85C, we are perhaps getting closer to a result we can live with. My colleagues and I continue to believe that the Government should implement in full Stephen Shaw’s recommendation of an absolute prohibition on the detention of pregnant women. Such a policy would not put immigration control in peril; it would ensure that some pretty barbaric practices in UK detention facilities are brought to an end.
It is frustrating that we are still having this debate without the full facts at our disposal. When will the Minister tell us exactly how many pregnant women are detained, how long they are detained, whether they were released and whether they were removed? What information we do have does not impress. For example, we know that 90 out of 99 pregnant women detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014 were eventually released back into the community.
Lords amendment 85C does incorporate the 72 hours or one-week limit suggested by the Government, but it also contains alternative protections. Its inclusion of a general principle against the detention of pregnant women mirrors provisions on the detention of children in families set out in the Immigration Act 2014. As well as retaining that overriding principle, it sets standards for accommodation, for providing notice and for shorter journey times. If we have to compromise on our belief that there should be an absolute ban, then we are absolutely determined to see the full range of protections retained within the Bill. We cannot support what the Government propose in terms of amending amendment 85C and thereby watering down many of those protections. We will not support dawn raids on pregnant women, long journeys to detention centres, or inadequate facilities at those centres. If there is not to be the absolute ban recommended by Sir Stephen Shaw, then we must have the safeguards that prioritise antenatal care over Home Office convenience. The Government have their priorities absolutely wrong.
Amid all the gloom of this Bill, at least let us properly safeguard the right to liberty, and at least take action to properly protect pregnant women. That really is not very much to ask.