My Lords, I know that my noble friend is anxious to speak on the Government’s amendment so I will leave the main argument to him.
In May 2010, the Government did indeed commit to ending the immigration detention of children. There was a widespread, positive response to this change—and there have been some improvements. Fewer children are detained, and when they are it is for shorter periods. This must be recognised. The Government’s amendments would create a legislative basis for some of these improvements, for example by setting a time limit on child detention in law. However, it is very disappointing that the Government’s amendments do not prohibit or even properly limit child detention. They do not state that detention should be a last resort, as is the current policy, or that detention should be for the shortest possible time. I fear that, in practice, it may become normal for children to be detained for the maximum permissible period, where this is administratively convenient. Amendment 8 seeks to address this concern.
Bail for Immigration Detainees, to which I am sure many of us are grateful for its experience and for what it has shared with us in its helpful briefing, produced Fractured Childhoods, a report on the cases of 111 parents who were separated from 200 children by immigration detention. Children lost weight, had nightmares and suffered from insomnia during their parents’ detention. In 2010, BID dealt with a family whose members were separated for removal. The father was detained when reporting and the mother and young children were asked to make their way to the airport to leave the UK with him the following week. The family had previously complied with the Home Office and reported regularly, as required. Following the father’s arrest, the family did not have access to financial support and the mother was unable to buy food for her children, including milk for her baby. The mother did not speak English and her very distressed eldest child had to translate when an immigration officer telephoned the family. Her younger child began waking up in the night, crying hysterically. The mother was not offered any practical or financial assistance to travel across the UK to an airport, with several young children, for an early-morning flight.
New Section 78A(2)(b) under Clause 2 states that,
“a relevant parent or carer may not be removed from or required to leave the United Kingdom if, as a result, no relevant parent or carer would remain in the United Kingdom”.
This clause envisages that one parent may be split from a two-parent family and forcibly removed from the UK. It also allows that single parents may be removed without children as long as there is a relevant carer remaining with the child.
In many cases, children are likely to be seriously damaged by such separation. In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, stated that the separations would occur,
“in exceptional circumstances … for example, where there is a public protection concern or a risk to national security”.—[ Official Report , 3/3/14; col. 1125.]
However, the clause does not state that any specific circumstances are needed to justify separation. Amendment 5 would address this concern by providing that families must be separated only where necessary for child protection.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, also stated in Committee that families may be split where the presence of one parent,
“was not conducive to the public good”.—[ Official Report , 3/3/14; col. 1133.]
This appears to refer to cases where parents have committed criminal offences. However, the fact that a parent has committed, for example, a false document offence is surely not of itself a sufficient reason to deport or remove them without their children.
Clauses 2 and 3 define family returns cases and limit the definition of a “relevant parent or carer” to somebody who is,
“living in a household in the United Kingdom with the child”.
The child may be seriously affected if a parent who is not living in their household is removed and, indeed, may need to leave the UK with them. For example, single parents who are in prison or immigration detention are not living in a household with their child. Furthermore, there will be cases where children living in households with other family members—for example, for financial reasons—would be very seriously affected if their parent were removed from the United Kingdom. Amendments 4 and 6 would remove the requirement for parents to be living in a household with their children in order to take part in the family returns process and would safeguard the welfare of children in the sort of situations I have described.
Current Home Office policy states that unaccompanied children should be detained for removal,
“on the day of the planned removal to enable the child to be properly and safely escorted to their flight and/or to their destination”.
However, Clause 5 would allow for unaccompanied children to be detained overnight for removal, potentially multiple times.
A 28-day period is proposed between families exhausting their appeal rights and enforcement. However, Clause 2(4)(a) states that the removal directions may be set in this period. This would prevent families having a meaningful reflection period. Furthermore, we have to take seriously the evidence that that timeframe is too short for families who have been in the UK for years to consider voluntary return.
Before I finish, I should like to put four specific questions to the Minister. First, why does the Bill not clearly state that child detention should be a last resort for the shortest possible time? Secondly, how will children whose parents are in detention or prison be safeguarded, given that Clause 3 defines a relevant parent or carer as,
“living in a household in the United Kingdom with the child”?
Thirdly, is it not possible that families will be separated on removal in any case where a parent has committed a criminal offence? Does this include cases involving non-violent offences, such as possession of false documents? Fourthly, a 28-day period is proposed between the family exhausting appeal rights and removal. New Section 78A(4)(c) under Clause 2 states that “preparatory action” may be taken in this period. Can the Minister clarify whether this will include detention?
At the outset of our deliberations on Report, perhaps as I put these amendments forward I may be forgiven for saying that we all like to pride ourselves on living in a civilised society. In a civilised society, children and their well-being should at all times be central to our concerns. Indeed, many of our obligations under international conventions and agreements arise from undertakings given by British Governments of both parties. Very often, Governments of both parties were pioneers in the changes and legislation proposed.
Detention can have a serious impact on children, too often irreparably. That can lead to alienation and assist social instability in disturbing ways. It lays people open to manipulation by extremists. That is why, for practical reasons in terms of security not less than anything else, our natural concern for children being at the forefront of all our considerations matters the most. My amendments are intended, transparently, to put our commitment to children in the Bill and put beyond doubt that it will always be the prevailing values and culture that matter most. Legislation of itself achieves nothing but it is there to lay out the values to which we subscribe and to underpin them by the law. That is why it is so important.