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My Lords, I add my thanks to those already expressed to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for securing this debate and, in so doing, drawing attention to the Project 17 report of February this year on children’s experiences of the hostile environment. I will confine my comments to the issue of the migrant children on whom the report concentrates, although I agree with the wider but highly relevant points made by other noble Lords in this debate, not least those made by my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie. The title of the debate seeks the Government’s assessment of the report; no doubt that will come when the Government respond.
Project 17 works with migrant children whose families have no recourse to public funds, due to their parents’ immigration status. This means that their families are unable to claim the main welfare benefits or access social housing. Instead, due to their extremely adverse financial position—otherwise known as destitution—they have to seek further support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Some families affected have a legal right to remain in the UK but nevertheless have a condition attached to their leave to remain, preventing them accessing public funds. Some families are seeking to establish and regularise their immigration status in the hostile immigration environment to which the title of the Project 17 report refers.
Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children “in need” in their area. The Project 17 report indicates that just under 6,000 children from families with no recourse to public funds across England and Wales received Section 17 support—I think that was in 2012-13. The report goes on to say that children in such families grow up in exceptional poverty and are at risk of homelessness, exploitation and abuse. Continuing, the report states:
“The government’s commitment to creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants trumps its commitment to children’s rights, rendering the children in destitute migrant families ‘second class citizens’”.
With the arrival in office of the current Home Secretary, the Government sought to rebrand the openly declared and increasingly hostile environment policy of his two predecessors in that office. This report, however, indicates that rebranding a policy by giving it another name—a name which I imagine few apart from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, can now remember—alters nothing when attitudes and culture on immigration issues appear to have remained as they were under the two previous Home Secretaries.
Responsibility for supporting children living in families with no recourse to public funds rests with local authorities, which themselves have been subjected over the last 10 years to savage reductions in funding from central government. The result has been inevitable: local authorities have sought by one means or another, as they have in many other spheres of activity, to cut back on support for the children who we are discussing to match expenditure to their heavily and deliberately reduced income. The report states that the financial support provided to families under Section 17 is often well below asylum support rates under the Immigration and Asylum Act, which is the minimum that the Home Office views as required to avoid a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, and which case law suggests is the minimum a local authority is required to pay under Section 17. As a result, the report says that many families are unable to afford basic necessities such as enough food, clothing—including for school uniforms—and transport.
However, the impact goes further since the report points out that there can be an emotional impact on children in this position as they are left feeling socially isolated, distressed, ashamed and unsafe. This includes children who in a great many cases were born in this country and have spent their lives here; children who in a great many cases are British citizens; and children who are likely to become British before they reach adulthood. I certainly do not suggest that this has been a deliberate objective, but other government policies have also had an adverse impact on children and their future prospects in life. Two examples are the attack on the number, and level of service, of Sure Start centres by reducing the funding available to local authorities under the prolonged and still-continuing austerity programme of choice, not necessity, and the increased criminalisation of children as a result of the government-induced funding shortfall in children’s social care and the prolonged austerity programme of choice, which has led to a reduction of some 20,000 in the number of police officers.
The Government’s standard answer about services dependent on local authority funding is that it is up to local authorities to determine their priorities and that if they do not provide sufficient funds to adequately source a demand, that is entirely their responsibility and nothing whatever to do with central government. We will wait to see whether that is once again to be part of the Government’s response to this debate tonight. If it is, that is a thoroughly unprincipled response when coming from a Government who, over the last 10 years, have cut back heavily on the financial resources available to local authorities without comparably reducing their responsibilities. Indeed, on some matters local authorities have been given expanded or additional responsibilities. Local authorities are now in a situation where the funding they have been left with is just plain insufficient to enable them to deliver properly on all the priorities that they are still either required or expected to deliver, including the priority of the children who are the subject of the Project 17 report.
The report makes a number of recommendations directed at local authorities, which relate to how assessments should be made and determined; the level of financial support; the provision of information about how it is calculated; and the suitability and location of accommodation. The more telling recommendations, however, are directed at central government. These include: that local authorities should be sufficiently funded by central government to meet their duties under Section 17; that the Home Office should not apply the “no recourse to public funds” condition to individuals granted leave to remain on human rights grounds; that the Government’s 30-hours free childcare scheme should be made available to families with no recourse to public funds; and that legal aid should be reinstated for individuals applying for leave to remain on the basis of family or private life.
A number of challenges and questions have been raised with the Government in this debate on the impact of their policies on the issue we are discussing, which the Project 17 report highlighted. It is now for the Government to give their response to these challenges and questions, not least those raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. That government response could of course demolish, or largely demolish, much of the case made in the report, depending on the strength of the case that the Government present as their assessment of it. But if the government response does not do that, we need to ask ourselves whether what government policy has apparently done, according to the Project 17 report, and is doing to the children in question does or does not reflect the true British value of decency and the British sense of justice and fair play.