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Migrant Children: Welfare - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:01 pm on 9th July 2019.

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Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 7:01 pm, 9th July 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this debate on Project 17’s report, Not seen, Not heard. In doing so, I draw attention to my interests as listed on the register and, in particular, to the research support I receive from the Good Faith Partnership’s RAMP project on immigration policy.

In this report, Project 17 highlights the way that vulnerable families and children are trapped between overstretched local authorities and punitive immigration controls. As with the ongoing harm caused by the two-child limit, it seems that cost-cutting and punitive notions of control are prioritised over the flourishing and protection of families. We need a radical change of direction away from seeing vulnerable children as a burden. Like many in this Chamber, I believe that a policy built on the gift and voices of children is not a naive aspiration but the very definition of good policy.

Let us be clear: the interaction of immigration enforcement and welfare is never going to be simple. There are no neat solutions to all the problems presented by the report. But the relationship between immigration enforcement and welfare is currently malfunctioning, trapping many in destitution. The requirement for no recourse to public funds affects any person who is “subject to immigration control”; that is, a non-EEA national who meets one of the following conditions: they have leave to remain, but are subject to a NRPF restriction; they have leave to remain given as a result of a maintenance undertaking; they need leave to remain in the UK, but do not have it; or, in some cases, they are appealing a refusal to vary their leave.

Identifying the appropriate approach with those in the latter two categories is complex, but I wonder whether we might just get rid of the first two. I was in a round table on the immigration White Paper last week, and many sectors highlighted how British migration policy seems to be built on the false premise that there will always be a near-infinite demand for visas and that nothing will put people off wanting to come to the UK. The use of NRPF on legal migration seems a symptom of that approach. If you are legally here, you are legally here. We should, by all means, have robust qualifying criteria for granting leave to remain but, if we grant it to people, this should mean that we will support them in an emergency. If we are willing to accept their contribution, we should be willing to commit to caring for them.

Also of particular concern are reports of people who have no recourse to public funds despite being here precisely because human rights grounds have been granted. It is a cruel irony that those making in-country human rights applications based on Article 8 and the right to family life do so with no recourse and no legal aid. I recognise that people often apply on these grounds simply to frustrate removal, but that is not sufficient reason to punish everyone applying in this way.

The no recourse to public funds requirement disproportionately affects those likely to be discriminated against by other parts of the system. Among those subject to NRPF that engaged with the Unity Project between September 2017 and April 2019, 90% were black African or Caribbean, 87% were women, 96% had dependents, and 76% were single parents; 85% had a British child. The Unity Project also highlights how the threat of destitution can trap people in coercive and abusive relationships.

There is so much about NRPF that demands our attention, but the focus of Project 17’s report is its impact on children. The report identifies that the current safeguards are not working. Section 17 of the Children Act places a duty on local authorities to uphold the welfare of children in need, but Joel, aged 9, told Project 17:

“We had to keep going to McDonalds every night and we would also go to A&E. I would have to wear my school clothes and sleep like that. They would say we have to sleep where the people wait but it’s just like lights and there is nothing colourful there. The chairs were hard. You know when you just sleep in the waiting room? I felt sorry for my mum because she had to stay up and my head had to be on her lap. She had to stay awake, her eyes were open like 24/7, all night and all day so she could watch over me. It was hard for her but also hard for me”.

The report found that Joel is not alone in having been left street homeless. Where accommodation is provided, Project 17 noted that it is often unsuitable. As Tayo, aged 9, says:

“We sit on the floor … because we don’t have tables and chairs”.

The process to access support is difficult on both parent and child. Amir, aged 8, told Project 17 that he was made to feel like, “I committed a crime”, and, “intimidated”. The presence of immigration officers in local authority assessments disincentives people from accessing this vital support in the first place. Project 17 found wider evidence of local authorities failing to follow statutory guidance, as well as Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in not prioritising the voice of the child. A bedroom to rest safely in; a table to eat together at and the attention of adults; safety, community and attention—these surely are foundational to a thriving childhood. We need to do more to defend them from the pressures of border enforcement.

As a first step, I ask the Minister and other noble Lords to join me in encouraging local authorities to sign up to Project 17’s children’s charter, which sets out some basic principles to guide how local authorities should support people in these situations. I hope the other recommendations made in the report can also be heeded.

As we expect a new Prime Minister and a new approach to migration policy, I hope that Parliament will have the opportunity to ask how policy might be put in the service of vulnerable families and children. There are, rightly, strong voices articulating what different business sectors need from our migration policy. Less prominent but also present are those who highlight the needs of local communities and of many newcomers to the UK. We hear much less about those whom the migration system forces into precarious living. We hear even less from those directly affected themselves.

I thank Project 17 and the children that it works with for all that they have taught us in this report, however harrowing some of it is to read. It is my hope that they will find allies in this Chamber who will advocate for immigration policy built around human dignity and the rights of the child. Regardless of their immigration status and that of their parents, these children are beloved gifts, made in the image of God. They are worthy of safety, community and attention, and their presence is qualification enough for us to provide it.

What data is currently collected regarding these children? Does the Home Office know how many children are affected by NRPF? What assessment has been conducted on the impact of the policy specifically on children?

Easy answers are unlikely ever to be found in the space between migration and welfare policy. However, we can begin to approach better solutions only if we are focused on the goal, which must be the flourishing of communities, families and children. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the report, and to working with her and other colleagues to ensure that we treat these children, as we want to treat all children, with full dignity.