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Migrant Children: Welfare - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 9th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench 7:34 pm, 9th July 2019

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. I must confess that there was a point, about three minutes ago, when I hoped beyond hope that he would go into song and sing about these refugees and these children. Perhaps that should be for another time; I am not sure what it says in the Chamber handbook about the appropriateness of that. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for initiating this discussion, and declare an interest as a governor of Coram, which has among its many activities dealing with children—with whom this report is concerned—the Coram Children’s Legal Centre.

I commend Project 17 on a timely and truly shocking report. Noble Lords do not need to read the whole thing; the conclusions and recommendations on pages 44 and 45 are hard-hitting, painfully clear and, for me, and I suspect for many others who care deeply about the welfare of children, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. Our excellent Library briefing moves sequentially from the Project 17 report at the beginning seamlessly into the Government’s overview of the Immigration Act 2016, and there, at the bottom of the first page, the Government state:

“The act will restrict the support we give to people whose claims for asylum have been unconfirmed”— note that, “unconfirmed”—

“and their dependants … We are also simplifying”— why do I want to reach for a hard hat whenever I read “simplify” in a government document?—

“the basis on which local authorities in England can support migrants without immigration status. We will continue to meet all of our obligations towards asylum seekers, refugees and children, but equally we should be expecting illegal migrants to leave the UK rather than providing access to support”.

Then, at the bottom of page 2, the Government state that,

“the costs of implementing measures in this act are compensated by the benefits”.

The then Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, described the Immigration Act as a Bill that,

“will build an immigration system that truly benefits Britain”.

If you read this report, one of a sorry procession of reports and stories continuously eroding public confidence in the Home Office and in our whole approach to immigration—let alone how we choose to treat certain children—it is hard not to be moved and hard to resist the temptation to become intemperate, and even indignant. What a huge irony it is that our outgoing Prime Minister, who devoted so much time and effort to achieving her breakthrough Modern Slavery Act, should also have presided over a Home Office that has evolved and instituted a barrage of initiatives that have created an environment in which it appears that some Home Office officials feel empowered to apply a form of modern slavery to those they view potentially as illegal immigrants—both adults and their children.

I suspect that, like me, many noble Lords have genuine sympathy for the Minister—and the Minister who sits beside her—who has had to stand again and again at the Dispatch Box and explain what so often appear the unintended consequences of ill-thought through and poorly executed initiatives and regulations. It is interesting to note the body language of her predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, whom I have seen around the House. All I will say is that her facial expression and body language make me feel that a very large weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She seems an awful lot happier. I have not asked her, but that is what I imply.

Windrush has become shorthand for what appears to many outsiders an endemic and institutional failure of the moral compass that is so vital to ensure that there is an appropriate social, judicial and responsible culture in the Home Office. I was talking earlier today to a noble Lord who shall remain nameless but with whom I share an office—so noble Lords can look that up and work it out. He was the head of another government department, not the Home Office. I asked him whether what has been going on in the Home Office was unusual and particular. He assured me that it was not at all unusual, and that it was the department of all departments where one spends most of one’s time firefighting, standing at the Dispatch Box unexpectedly and having to defend things that probably one had never heard about until about eight hours previously. So apparently this is business as normal—but the fact that it is business as normal does not make it morally acceptable.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like to work in some of the units on the front line, whether in the Home Office or in the local authorities to which our current legislation delegates so much of the nitty-gritty detail that can have a profound and sometimes devastating effect on the children whose voices we hear in the Project 17 report. Should the Minister remain in her post, I will give her due warning. I had a discussion yesterday with the noble Lord, Lord Porter, who stepped down from his chairmanship of the Local Government Association on Monday, having devoted the preceding three years to a very successful campaign focused on social care that resulted in a series of initiatives, including the report of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. After this campaign the issue appears to be firmly on the political agenda. My warning to the Minister is: guess what the LGA’s next campaign will be? It will be to focus on the interaction between local authorities and the children they are asked to look after. So the Minister is warned: this is coming quickly down the road.

I appeal to the Minister to consider the following questions. Does she genuinely feel that the hostile environment has been helpful and, more importantly, effective? Have the Government done any detailed analysis to measure whether it has been successful? Does she genuinely believe that she can uphold the UK’s duties to children while presiding over a policy that denies some of them access to services and leaves some of them in destitution?

In preparing for this debate, I entered the terms “Home Office” and “Children” into a search engine. The results were sobering and shocking. One could try to explain them away by citing biased algorithms, but I think we all know that the excuse will not wash. So I appeal to the Minister, to her senior officials, to her ministerial colleagues and, perhaps most importantly, to her conscience to listen to the voices of these children and then reflect deeply on the policies that appear to be having such a defining and negative impact on their lives. I contend that the legal status of parents should have no bearing whatever on how their children are treated.