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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 4:45 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I have chosen to speak today in order to raise a pressing devolved affairs issue, but I turn first to some other matters. The proposed immigration Bill will be the third such Bill before your Lordships’ House since I joined it. The two previous ones created the legislative underpinnings for Mrs May’s really hostile but now compliant environment. I do not see any signs that this one will start to dismantle that. Indeed, talk of deportation has fuelled fears that many EU citizens could become embroiled in it if they fail to apply for settled status in time—Windrush revisited.

There are a number of asylum and refugee issues that also need to be addressed, in particular the right to work, family reunion and the destitution faced by too many who fall through the bureaucratic cracks when granted refugee status because they are not allowed enough time to move from asylum support to mainstream social security. Further, although these are not strictly speaking immigration issues, the Bill would provide an opportunity to put right a couple of injustices raised recently by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. One is the denial of citizenship to the offspring of fathers from British Overseas Territories who were not married to their mothers. When we recently debated this, the Minister agreed that,

“we need to remedy this sooner rather than later”.—[Official Report, 23/7/19; col. 708.]

Can she confirm today that it will be remedied in this Bill?

The other issue is the exorbitant fee of £11,002, of which only £372 represents the administrative costs, charged for children born here or who have spent most of their lives here who are entitled to British citizenship but who have to register that entitlement because of their parents’ status. The previous Home Secretary admitted over a year ago that the fee represents a “huge amount” and said that he would look at it, yet despite concerns raised repeatedly in both Houses and a critical chief inspector’s report, nothing has happened other than that the fee was not raised this year. It is nearly a year since the Minister wrote to me with an assurance that,

“we are actively considering what changes we might be able to make to the charging framework for children”.

Given that the new Home Secretary apparently raised the issue herself with the Home Office shortly before taking on her new role, can we finally hope for action and not just “active consideration”?

The gracious Speech also promised that Ministers,

“will ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education”.

All too often, such access is impeded by poverty. For instance, hungry children are not well placed to benefit from their education, however excellent it might be. Questions about the future of funding after March 2020 for the very successful national school breakfast programme have been met with the answer that decisions will be taken as part of the spending review. Well, the review statement has been and gone and I have seen no mention of the decision. This is urgent because schools need to start planning now. When will we have an answer?

Urgent too is the devolution issue I wish to raise concerning social security mitigations in Northern Ireland. Because of Northern Ireland’s special circumstances, a mitigations package to soften the impact of certain elements of so-called welfare reforms was agreed up to March 2020 by the Northern Ireland Executive. There is considerable anxiety in Northern Ireland about what is going to happen to this package in the absence of a functioning Executive. A recent joint report by the Work and Pensions Committee and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recommended that it be extended beyond next March, stating:

“The UK Government must act quickly to end the uncertainty”.

It argued that the circumstances—

“a potentially drastic impact on vulnerable people and no Assembly to extend the legislation”— are sufficiently exceptional to override questions of devolved competence.

The response I received to a recent Written Question on this was that:

“The Department for Communities in Northern Ireland is responsible for the delivery”,

of the mitigation scheme, and that:

“A decision to extend … beyond March 2020 would be a matter for an incoming Minister for Communities in a restored Northern Ireland Executive”.

I am sorry, but this is simply irresponsible given that there is no certainty that the Executive will be restored in time.

The Department for Communities itself has made clear that:

“In the absence of a functioning Assembly it is considered that the only viable option for providing the legal authority for the Department to make mitigation payments beyond 2020 would be for the Westminster Parliament to bring forward appropriate legislation”.

But there is no mention of this in the gracious Speech. There is a clear civic and political consensus in Northern Ireland that the mitigations must continue beyond March 2020. In the absence of a local devolved Assembly, the UK Government must act. Will the Minister therefore give me an assurance that this will now be looked at as a matter of urgency? I am speaking at a civil society conference in Belfast this week and would like to be able to offer a ray of hope.

Of course, the mitigations package does not mean that Northern Ireland’s claimants have been immune from all social security cuts. The Cliff Edge Coalition NI told the joint committee that the largest financial losses were due to the cut in the real value of benefits and credits since 2011. Until the change in Prime Minister, Ministers deflected criticisms of the four-year benefits freeze with the assurance that it is coming to an end next year. Although that did nothing to address the significant loss in the value of benefits it has caused, it was at least reassuring. However, now Ministers are refusing to give a straight answer to questions about the future of the freeze. This is very worrying indeed, especially given concerns about the likely impact of Brexit on those on the lowest incomes.

In his introduction to the briefing on the speech, the Prime Minister assured us that,

“we will move forwards, towards a future in which our children, and their children, can grow up to live longer, happier, healthier and wealthier lives”.

If his Ministers cannot give an assurance that the benefits on which their families rely will again be index-linked, that promise rings hollow for the growing numbers of children living in poverty.