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My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for this debate and for the contributions of other noble Lords this evening—and to Project 17 for highlighting the implications for children of the Government’s immigration policy.
I appreciate that this is a difficult situation for the Home Office and for local authorities. I have to take issue with Project 17’s report, which refers to:
“The government’s commitment to creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants”.
It was supposed to be about creating a hostile environment for illegal migrants, not all migrants. However, the reality is that the Government have created a hostile environment for all undocumented migrants.
I do not know whether the Minister will repeat what she has said on previous occasions. To be honest, I am not concerned about whether the hostile environment began under a Labour, coalition or Conservative Government, nor whether the new term “compliant environment” is simply a new label for the same culture or a genuine attempt to change the culture at the Home Office. As anyone who has studied business management will tell you, culture is the most difficult aspect of any organisation to change, and the evidence suggests that the culture at the Home Office continues to be one of deporting given the slightest discrepancy in an undocumented migrant’s application, and of imposing no recourse to public funds where the Home Office is unable to deport them. As my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno said, one piece of evidence that the culture still exists is the fact that more than 50% of appeals against Home Office immigration decisions are successful.
I fully accept that the Government cannot allow unfettered access to the UK to all who want to come here, and that there must be rules on immigration and thorough investigations into whether an undocumented migrant meets those rules. But surely any civilised society should provide whatever means are necessary to establish the truth of an application, and should provide a reasonable standard of living while that truth is determined.
This is not about relaxing the Immigration Rules to allow anyone into the country. This is about providing a fair system that allows equality of arms to the applicant and the Home Office and does not lean on the applicant, the applicant’s family and, most of all, the children in the hope that they will give up and leave.
As the report clearly shows, the in many cases devastating consequences for the children caught up in these cases are a result of the Government’s approach and the Home Office’s culture of, “If in doubt, deport—or, if you can’t deport yet, make it so difficult that they’ll want to leave”. This report is about the symptoms of immigration policy. We need to address the causes.
These children are the innocent bystanders in the battle between their parents and the Home Office, and the safety net of Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 is giving way because of the financial strain that is being put on local authorities by cuts in the central government grant. In the same way that the Home Office is under pressure to reduce net migration—from the likes of the Brexit Party, UKIP or whatever the latest incarnation of xenophobic, right-wing populism is—local authorities are under pressure to reduce expenditure in every department because of a lack of funding.
Of course, it is grossly unfair that children should be treated in this way—but by the same token we do not want to differentiate between those seeking permanent leave to remain who have no children and those who have. If in every case applicants were treated fairly and supported for however long the Home Office took to decide on permanent leave to remain, the issues in this report would not arise.
Perhaps I am being cynical. In the equation of, “How many votes will this policy win us and how many will it lose us?”, the cost-benefit analysis of supporting and being decent to undocumented migrants may well come out as a negative. And, of course, none of those involved—applicants and children—has a vote. It is therefore not just the children who are not seen and not heard but the undocumented migrants as well who have no voice.
That may be one reason why the Liberal Democrats are not the most popular party. We believe in the dignity and well-being of individuals, no matter who they are or where they come from. That is why we believe that asylum seekers should be able to work if the Home Office has been unable to resolve their case within six months, so that they can support themselves and their family without having to rely on the state, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and my noble friend Lord Roberts said. But during that six months, or for however long the Government decide to deprive them of their ability to support themselves, they and their children must, at the very least, be given a home, enough to eat and enough to live a decent life. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, at the moment the system is trapping many in destitution.
Noble Lords will be familiar with the saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin:
“That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer”.
Surely it is better that 100 applicants should exploit the system than that one innocent child should suffer.