My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 16 and 20 in this group, which appear on the Marshalled List in my name.
Amendment 16 would ensure that the Bill recognised that the promotion of the best interests of the child is not simply a matter of the rights to be interfered with being in the public interest but the promotion of those best interests is, in itself, in the public interest. In its current form, Clause 18 does not allow for proper consideration of the best interests of all children, as required by UK and international legislation. Despite government Amendment 58 reiterating their commitment to the Secretary of State’s duty under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, Clause 18 does not make clear the need for the best interests of children to be a primary consideration in any Article 8 case involving a child. That includes those who are not British citizens and those who have not lived in the UK for at least seven years.
Amendment 58 does not address the concerns raised by non-governmental organisations, including the Refugee Children’s Consortium, about the lack of an explicit provision in Clause 18 to have regard to children’s best interests. What is required is a provision stipulating what judges must have regard to in the public interest when considering Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of family and private life.
Courts and judges are not under a statutory obligation to comply with the Section 55 duty. Instead, they review the Home Secretary’s decisions and actions in the light of her own duties. The courts have made it clear that children’s rights are a clear public interest consideration in addition to their own personal interests. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights notes in its scrutiny of the Bill, Parliament is entitled to put into primary legislation that which it considers to be in the public interest. The lack of a clear statement setting out the importance of children’s best interests as a factor to be considered creates a risk that children’s best interests will not be taken into account as a matter of public interest to the same degree as those public interest considerations listed in Clause 18. In its evidence to the Bill Committee, the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association stated that Clause 18 directs attention to some factors at the expense of others. The most obvious missing factor is the best interests of children.
“although the child has a right to her family life and all that goes with it, there is also a strong public interest in ensuring that children are properly brought up”.
In this respect, the Bill is not consistent with established case law and gives the impression that children’s interests amount to no more than the private and personal interests of an individual and their family. They clearly amount to more than that and this should be reflected in the Bill.
Amendment 20 reflects the fact that “unduly harsh” is an incorrect test of the context of considering what is best for a child, whereas “disproportionate” is known and well understood. New Section 117C of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, inserted by this Bill and relating to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, states:
“Exception 2 applies”— where there is—
“a genuine and subsisting relationship with a qualifying partner, or a genuine and subsisting parental relationship with a qualifying child, and the effect of C’s deportation on the partner or child would be unduly harsh”.
The “unduly harsh” test in relation to children is not consistent with the best interests principles. This test of “unduly harsh” is a legally defined term within the context of refugee protection and internal relocation. I should like to cite an example and I do so in due deference to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. I hope that he will not mind if I quote from a case over which he presided in 2007—the case of the Secretary of State v AH (Sudan) and others. In that judgment, the noble and learned Lord was quoted as having stated in another case:
“‘The question ... is whether it would be unduly harsh to expect a claimant who is being persecuted for a Convention reason in one part of his country to move to a less hostile part before seeking refugee status abroad. The words ‘unduly harsh’ set the standard that must be met for this to be regarded as unreasonable. If the claimant can live a relatively normal life there judged by the standards that prevail in his country of nationality generally ... it will not be unreasonable to expect him to move there’”.
However, I do not believe that that test can be applied within the context of considering children’s best interests. Surely a child should not be expected to live a relatively normal life judged by the standards that prevail. That is not and, I submit, cannot be a best interests consideration. When considering a child’s best interests, a range of issues need to be taken into account, such as the child’s immediate safety and their access to, and the quality of, vital services such as healthcare and education. In addition, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has a right to be cared for by his or her parents. In fact, Article 9 says:
“States … shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests”.
The audit carried out by the UNHCR last year of Home Office procedures highlighted that there is no systematic collection or recording of the information necessary and relevant to a quality best-interests consideration in family cases. This includes a lack of any mechanism to obtain the views of the child and to give those views weight in line with age and maturity. Research carried out by the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit into unaccompanied children’s asylum cases found that in 24 of 34 cases analysed, the Home Office failed to carry out any determination of the child’s best interests at all. The Joint Committee on Human Rights highlighted similar concerns in its scrutiny of this Bill, noting that without further clarity,
“there is a danger that front-line immigration officials … will be unclear about the relationship between the children duty in s. 55 and the new tests … which use different and unfamiliar language”.
The Government have said that, despite the introduction of tests in the courts, the courts would still be bound by the duty to promote the welfare of children under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 for all cases involving children. However, Clause 18 is likely to add further confusion, not least for decision-makers, as to how best interests are to be considered. Therefore, I believe that effective judicial oversight is crucial in ensuring that children’s best interests are taken into account in any case involving a child, and these considerations need to be made clear in the Bill.
In conclusion, considering whether it would be duly harsh to separate a child from his or her parent is inconsistent with the obligations to consider the child’s best interests. Perhaps I might invite the Minister to explain just what he understands “duly harsh” and “unduly harsh” to mean. At precisely what point does “duly harsh” become “unduly harsh”, and who decides where the line is crossed? The use instead of the term “disproportionate” at least allows for a balancing exercise within the well established approach to interference with Article 8 rights, which must include consideration of best interests. I very much hope that the Minister will take these points on board and I look forward to his response.