My Lords, this is not the first time the Minister and I have discussed the issues raised in this debate. This is about trying to come to an understanding that is humane, kind and caring.
“a fit country for heroes to live in”.
That is not what I want. I want a world fit for children to live in, a world where the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is respected in all parts. We talk of so many people who, because of various circumstances, do not receive this care. This could be because of famine, disease, conflict, poverty and so much else. I think the UN’s latest figure was that about 66 million people are in some sort of statelessness. There are nearly 100,000 unaccompanied children in Europe alone. I would love to say that we can resolve all these problems and help every child, but we do not have a magic wand. However, we do have the ability to remove many obstacles and transform the world of thousands of children.
On a worldwide scale, in the last two months, the conflict in Syria has led to 544 deaths, 100 of which were children. In the same area, unregistered migrants in Turkey have been rounded up and many have been returned to areas where death is a great possibility. On the other side of the Atlantic, on the Mexico-United States border, we have pictures of a little girl drowning in her father’s arms and we read of the President’s intention to round up unregistered immigrants. We already have disturbing reports of detention camps with no bedding or washing facilities, where children are separated from their families and sleep on concrete floors. Some have compared these camps to concentration camps. We must be in contact with the United States authorities to bring an end to such terrible conditions.
But would the UK treat its asylum seekers any better? If we distance ourselves from Europe and co-operation with European countries, will things be better? If we give up our co-operation with countries such as Italy, Greece and France, will conditions improve? Will the kids have a better life? Will the Minister tell me how? How will Brexit improve the condition of unaccompanied children in Europe? Will things improve in any way, or will Brexit just make matters more difficult? How will Brexit affect the work of the churches, especially the Catholic Church, and their pan-European activity to help refugees? There are many other organisations which deserve the most wonderful praise for all the work they are doing. They know no borders, but the UK is now guilty, with the whole attitude of the hostile environment, of digging ditches instead of building bridges. We are doing something that in itself will cause children to suffer.
The worst suffering of children was probably during the last world war. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem commemorates the atrocities. Some 6 million Jewish people were exterminated, including nearly 2 million children. At the memorial, you go into a dark tunnel and there are lights, each of which represents a child, and their names are read out. It is terrible that the world has treated its children this way. I pray, “Father, forgive” when I think of so much that has happened. The whole situation is one that we must avoid in the future, as one part of our political establishment seeks to divide, rather than unite and co-operate. We must look at the Home Office, and the decisions that create heartache when families are threatened with deportation. Even though I have been promised changes, the latest figure is that over 50% of Home Office decisions are overturned on appeal. This must cause great sadness, even to kids, who wonder what is happening, who at school are asked, “What does your father do?”, and say, “He’s not allowed to work. He’s got to be here 12 months. He might be able to work then”. They come into school knowing they have no money to go on trips and no clothes that could be described as their best.
I brought this up 10 years ago, and I say this directly to the Minister: what difference would it make if people were allowed to work after three months instead of after 12 months? I want her to answer that tonight. What difference would it make? People who work have dignity, they have funds, they have opportunity and hope, yet the Government insist that they will not be allowed to work until they have been here for 12 months. I sometimes work very hard with the Citizens of the World Choir. It is made up of refugees and friends: there are about 40 or 50 refugees there, from about 26 countries. They sing together, they work together and they hope together. Last week was a great week for the choir, because two members had leave to remain. There was jubilation in that rehearsal room, because they had a bit of hope to share. The first thing that the girl said was, “Now I can work”. She did not want to sponge or to undermine anything the Government were doing. She wanted to work. So many of them are able—they have qualifications, they are nurses, doctors and teachers—and they are being denied the right to become the sort of people who have the respect that their status deserves.
I ask the Minister, from the bottom of my heart: will she, for once, meet me to discuss this? We have a promise to meet, but that is about another case. Somehow, we must restore people’s dignity. We can, and it will not cost us a penny. We would benefit, because they would pay taxes and national insurance contributions. Will the Government now please change their attitude? We need a change in immigration regulations, a change that would transform lives. There is so much that we could do. We could remove the threat of deportation on reaching 18 years of age. We could restore legal advice to those who have nowhere else to turn, and at the Home Office, we could avoid these wrong and heart-breaking decisions. A positive outlook and a generosity of spirit could help build that world fit for children to live in. We can take positive steps. Why are this Government not doing so?