Refugees (Family Reunion) (No.2) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:39 am on 16th March 2018.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 11:39 am, 16th March 2018

I am delighted to be a sponsor of the Bill and to support it. I congratulate Angus Brendan MacNeil on introducing it. I pay tribute to the work of the British Red Cross and others who have done a great deal to assist in this matter.

I was a member of the Conservative party when Ted Heath, rightly, admitted Asian refugees from Uganda. I am proud of that. In my community, we have a happy and prosperous community of former Ugandan Asians who are now proudly British. That is the spirit of my party that I hope Members from across the House will remember. That is the spirit in which my hon. Friend David Warburton spoke earlier. I regret it if other contributions have perhaps not come up to that spirit.

I simply say this: the Bill is consistent with Government policy—my hon. Friend explained that very well—which has sought to address real issues. I do not criticise anything the Government have done on the work to support refugees in the region and to try to make it possible for them to make new lives nearer to home, rather than to embark on dangerous journeys. All of that is good and right—the money we have invested through the Department for International Development and other programmes—and the Bill does not seek to criticise or undermine it in any way. The Bill deals with a specific area of the law in relation to family reunion, a concept that is accepted in our law and, indeed, is accepted in Government policy.

The issue is that in practice some areas of the law do not work well or fail. The Bill does no more than try to improve the law in that regard and to make it work in a fairer fashion for, as has been observed, a very small number of people. The real issues about pull factors and so on, be they right or wrong, are addressed through other Government policy initiatives that are nothing to do with the Bill. This is a small and modest but very useful measure. We would do well to keep that in context.

The position of legal aid in family reunion cases is be considered by the Lord Chancellor. I am glad about that—the Justice Committee has pressed long and hard for there to be a review of LASPO—but that does not mean they should not also seek to entrench the rules through the Bill. It is very clear from the evidence we heard that there was a misapprehension that cases of this kind are simple and straightforward. The evidence from practitioners in the field—from the British Red Cross, pro bono lawyers and others—clearly demonstrated that in the vast majority of cases it is in fact quite complicated. We only have to think about it: genuine refugees flee in fear. As I said in an earlier intervention, they are not likely to have had the time or inclination to have gone through a tick-box exercise on what documentation they might need at some point further down the line in the future under regulations which they, by the very nature of things when they leave, have no knowledge. They then have to go through a process which is, for perfectly good reasons, complex and full of legalese. They have to do so in what is almost invariably going to be a foreign language and under circumstances of great stress and pressure.

I note that from the research of the British Red Cross and the lawyers involved, in something like 74% of family reunion cases at least one original document required under the current rules is missing. That is hardly surprising given the way people have fled and have ended up here—lawfully and properly accepted, I emphasise again—as refugees under legal conventions. They then have to go through the rigmarole of producing witness statements and affidavits to explain why those documents are missing, get in touch with embassies or consulates—powers that, by the nature of things, are hardly likely to be friendly to them—or try to seek alternatives. The idea that they can do that without legal assistance is wrong. Practitioners and tribunal judges tell us that much time, sadly, is wasted, both for our court system and for people in difficult circumstances, and that early legal advice could not only achieve a more just outcome but will probably save money for the system, if that is a consideration. I simply say that the is not an either/or.

At the moment the issue around exceptional cases is guidance. In practice, the bar on exceptional cases is extremely high—I think “rare” is the word that is used—and may go further than is appropriate, particularly without legal advice to help refugees through the minefield of getting over that high bar. The Bill seeks to put that same principle, that there is an exceptional case regime, into statute. There is an advantage. By the nature of it, guidance changes, there is a lesser degree of certainty and it would confer different rights. The rights are not great.