Moved by Baroness Hamwee
62: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“Refugee family reunionThe Secretary of State must make rules under section 3(2) of the Immigration Act 1971 to allow any EEA or Swiss citizen who has exercised a right brought to an end by section 1 and Schedule 1 and who has been recognised as a refugee in the United Kingdom to sponsor their—(a) children under the age of 25 who were either under the age of 18, or unmarried, at the time the person granted asylum left the country of their habitual residence in order to seek asylum;(b) parents; or(c) siblings under the age of 25 who were either under the age of 18, or unmarried, at the time the person granted asylum left the country of their habitual residence in order to seek asylum;to join them in the United Kingdom.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause is intended to probe the need to expand family reunion rules.
My Lords, Amendment 62 is grouped with Amendments 64 and 79, which I very much support.
On a previous day, we debated Amendment 48, a “Dubs amendment”—the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is becoming a noun; I hope that he will forgive me for using his name in this way—which was also about refugee family reunion, with a focus on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. My Amendment 62 is different. The starting point is that someone of any age, including a child, who has refugee status in the UK could sponsor certain family members to join him or her. As with other amendments that we have debated, the issue is very much wider than EEA and Swiss citizens, but I cannot let the Bill go by without making points about this situation, too.
I believe that this is a very modest ask to test the water, as I have done previously and hope to do again if we ever get back to Private Members’ Bills, because I have one on this subject in the pipeline. The amendment would allow a refugee to sponsor his or her
“children under the age of 25 who were either under the age of 18, or unmarried, at the time” the sponsor left the country. The “unmarried” point is important. One hears alarming stories about the treatment of young women in refugee camps. They have an even more precarious existence than others, as well as precarious experiences on their journey. The amendment would also allow the sponsorship of parents or siblings who came in the categories I have just mentioned.
It is often suggested that families in difficult parts of the world send a son off to try to reach the UK with a view to the family seamlessly following for economic reasons. It is true that children in this situation do sometimes leave with a parent’s agreement, but all too often it is about seeking asylum which is a necessity. This provision would not kick in unless the sponsor was recognised as a refugee. I hope that that reassures noble Lords.
I dare say that someone might argue that such a provision would endanger that sponsor, who might be a child, because of the danger of getting to the UK. As always, the answer is to create safe and legal routes, as this amendment would do for those who are sponsored. It would also help with the recovery and integration of refugees in this country. I hope that it is not necessary to explain to the Committee the importance of families being together. They belong together.
In January of this year, other noble Lords may have received, as I did, emails from a primary school where children had read a book about a boy refugee trying to be reunited with his family. This was as the Government were repealing Section 17 of the 2018 EU withdrawal Act. At the time, I quoted a child who said:
“I thought my country was better than this.”—[Official Report, 15/1/20; col. 755.]
Another child castigated us. He said:
“You’re all leaders. You’re all meant to lead by example, yet you’ve made us feel so ashamed that we are prevented from helping these children. What if you were in their position? You’d want to be brought to safety, wouldn’t you?”
Well, I know the answer to that.
Another child said:
“There’s no war in the UK and if children have family here, they should have the right to go to them. I think it must be very scary to be alone, not speaking the same language as people around you, in a big new country surrounded by new people. These children don’t know what is going to happen to them. Knowing they were able to go to a relation in this country would be a relief for them and we would know we’ve helped.”
Finally by way of example, I will quote a young refugee assisted by the Red Cross:
“I was so little when I left my home and my family. I left but my family unfortunately did not have the chance to leave with me. I wish they were here with me. We’re forced to leave. We leave as children and we still need our parents’ figures in our lives. I worry about my brothers because I know they will be in danger. I worry about my younger sister, who’s 14. I want to get her out of there. It is so important that we are all together again.”
As I said, there are three amendments in this group. The fact that noble Lords from around the House are showing concern for refugees in different situations— and this is not the whole of it—indicates how widely shared the view is that we as a country should be doing more.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 62—spoken to in a very moving way by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—which seeks to expand family reunion rules. I also support Amendment 79, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, which ensures that family reunification should not be restricted by any lack of income or assets affecting relevant parties.
Amendment 64, in my name, allows visas to be issued on humanitarian grounds. Three conditions are stipulated: the person needs medical treatment, is an orphaned child, or is a child who is a dependant of a person in the United Kingdom. These conditions are covered in Section 3. However, Section 4 enables the Secretary of State to add to them if required.
As outlined, therefore, Amendment 64 does not address family reunion. Instead, it deals with people who need to come to the United Kingdom for medical attention, orphaned children, and those who do not qualify for family reunion but who are dependent upon another person, or people, in the United Kingdom. Post Brexit, this amendment may thus prove useful for the continuity of the United Kingdom’s excellent record of sustained high standards of humanitarian good practice, such as receiving here for emergency surgery the Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, after she had been shot in the head by Islamist terrorists, and, during the recent lockdown—and for this my noble friend the Minister and her government colleagues deserve a great deal of credit—the relocation to the United Kingdom of dozens of unaccompanied minors from Moria refugee camp in Greece when it was recently destroyed by arson.
Secondly, the measures proposed may also help many to avoid become prey to human smugglers and traffickers. An absence of humanitarian visas, which the amendment seeks to redress, is also an advantage to human smugglers and traffickers. For these reasons, I hope that the Minister can accept Amendment 64.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 62 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which I was delighted to sign. I also wish to express my support for Amendment 64, which the noble Earl has so ably presented, and to speak to my own Amendment 79. The first two refer to people who need refuge; mine refers to a different group and I will get to that in a second.
As I was listening to the powerful presentations from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Earl, I was thinking back to January 2016 when I was at a memorial service for a 15 year-old Afghan boy. His name was Masud, and he died in the back of lorry trying to get to the UK to rejoin his brother. This relates to the discussion we were having before about the situation on Lesbos. We have to provide safe, legal, orderly routes for people to reach the UK, and to achieve the refuge they should be entitled to.
I note my position as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong and identify what may well be a rising issue. The Government have stepped forward and said that they want to help people who need to leave Hong Kong because of what is happening there with regard to human rights. I very much hope that we will see action on providing orderly routes for people to be able to do that, and for people all around the world.
I mostly want to speak on Amendment 79. As I said, this does not relate to refugees. This relates to a situation involving those generally known as Skype children, the numbers of whom are, of course, likely to be significantly enhanced. At the moment, for non-EU and EAA citizens who are the spousal partner of a British citizen, the British citizen has to have an income of £18,600 a year to bring them to the UK—more with children—and at the end of the transition period this Bill will extend that to many more people and many more children.
This is a more limited amendment than Amendment 23, which we debated last week, which addressed couples being able to stay together as well as children. While I prefer Amendment 23, I am hoping that the Conservative Government might be more prepared to consider amending the legislation specifically so that it is not tearing children out of their parents’ arms. It is, at the moment, not using the wisdom of Solomon but actually delivering the verdict of Solomon and forcing parents to let their children go to be separated from them for years. As we all know from the situation with Covid-19, yes, you may be able to keep in contact through a screen, but it is certainly not the same thing.
I note that in 2018 the Children’s Commissioner for England commissioned a report showing that up to 15,000 British children were already growing up in this situation. This is without adding in people affected by Brexit. Many children were reportedly suffering from significant stress and anxiety from the separation.
So have the Government made an estimate of the number of children likely to be affected annually by the minimum income requirement once the immigration Act, as it will be, comes into effect? The research by the Children’s Commissioner found that Britain had the least family-friendly reunification policies of 38 developed countries, largely because of that minimum income requirement. That is of course £18,600 a year, which was then 138% of the minimum wage. It will not be quite so bad now. The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, said at the time:
“There is a wealth of evidence which indicates that children are far more likely to thrive when they are raised by parents in a warm, stable and loving family environment.”
There is evidence, she said, that this affects
“their well-being and development. It is also likely to have an impact on their educational attainment and outcomes.”
As one of the authors of the report commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner pointed out, the great majority of children affected by this are British citizens. They are being forced to grow up effectively in single-parent families, when their parents want to be together. So I hope that the Government will reflect on the comparison with Solomon and think about accepting this amendment.
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 64 to which I have added my name, which has already been moved by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. The concept here is a very simple one because, as I understand it, we are already doing it in part. The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, for example, which takes some Syrian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, already seems to be giving effect to a proposal similar to that in this amendment. The question is: why can we not apply that to people in Europe? That is the purpose of this amendment. It seems to be a very simple point, and it would also take away some of the pressure.
At the moment, if we are taking children from an EU country, there is quite a complicated bureaucratic procedure; they have to apply and then they have to be registered before we accept them. Would it not be easier if we had a humanitarian visa, so that it could be granted to children in that category and they could come straight here without any bureaucratic toing and froing? The concept is a simple one.
I appreciate that the idea of a humanitarian visa, generally, has been floated for a long time. I do not know whether it has the support of the UNHCR—I believe it does—but of course the scheme I referred to, the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme from that region, is based on the identification by UNHCR of individuals who are vulnerable, so the same arrangement could apply for the granting of a humanitarian visa. It seems to be a fairly straightforward proposal and one that would add to the other measures to provide a legal and safe way for people in desperate need to come to this country.
My Lords, I commend those noble Lords who have followed this Bill in detail and identified so many anomalies and injustices that may arise with the ending of free movement. I have intervened to give them support and to identify amendments in which I have a particular interest.
My brief intervention here is in support of Amendment 64 which, like a number of others, highlights the hardship and injustice that may arise not by deliberate intent but because, when a freedom that has been available for so long is terminated, something that is currently not an issue becomes one.
In Scotland, we have leading centres of medical excellence. In my home region, in Aberdeen, we have the oldest teaching hospital in the English-speaking world, which has pioneered a number of innovations including the MRI scanner. Medical centres of renown exist in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Under the present rules, treatment can be provided to EEA nationals without recourse to a visa. It would surely be inhumane if, under the terms of this amendment, a visa were to be denied in future. Similarly, it is surely right on compassionate grounds if an orphaned child can best be placed in foster care in the UK—for example, where a sibling is already placed or some other particular circumstances apply. If the child is the dependant of someone living in the UK who has the right to remain, it is surely absolutely right that they can be united with them in the UK. This should be sufficient grounds for the automatic right to a visa.
We have seen cases in which UK citizens have availed themselves of medical treatment elsewhere in the EU, and previous contributions have discussed treatment being provided to people from elsewhere, so it is to be hoped that accepting this amendment would help to ensure that EU countries provide similar reciprocal arrangements.
So much will change next year, sadly, in my view, to the detriment of UK citizens in most cases, and also inflicting potential hardship on our fellow EU citizens whose access to the UK has not been restricted hitherto. This amendment is a simple example of how we can modify our visa arrangements post Brexit on compassionate and humanitarian grounds. I hope it will be accepted in that spirit.
My Lords, in Committee in the Commons, the Government stated that they were
“committed to the principle of family reunion and supporting vulnerable children” and that they
“recognise that families can become separated because of … conflict and persecution”, including through
“the speed and manner in which people are often forced to flee their country.” —[
Eligibility for refugee family reunion is covered in the UK’s Immigration Rules, which provide that refugees in the UK can be joined, via family reunion, by their spouse or partner and their dependent children under the age of 18.
Amendment 62 increases the family members whom EEA and Swiss nationals, who have exercised a right ended by Clause 1 of this Bill and are refugees in the UK, are allowed to sponsor to join them. In reality, the existing UK policy leaves some of the most vulnerable children separated from their parents at a time when they need their families more than ever—an issue that Amendment 62 seeks to address.
Amendment 64, to which my noble friend Lord Dubs’s name is attached, seeks to remedy this by requiring the Secretary of State to make provision for a visa to enter or remain in the UK on humanitarian grounds. This would apply to an EEA or Swiss national—that is done to keep the amendment in scope of the Bill—who requires medical treatment in the UK that is not available where they are resident; who is an orphan child, and a foster family or other foster care is available to the child in the UK and leave to enter or remain in the UK would be in the child’s best interests; or who is a dependent child of someone who has been granted leave to enter or remain in the UK. In their reply, perhaps the Government could say what they estimate would be the number of people entering the UK each year under the terms of such a humanitarian visa, compared with the latest annual net migration figure, for example.
The third amendment in this group provides that a person should be granted leave to enter or remain in the UK if they are an EEA or Swiss national and either have a child with a British citizen or person who has leave to remain in the UK, or are a child of a British citizen or person who has leave to remain in the UK.
I conclude by saying only that if the Government are
“committed to the principle of family reunion and supporting vulnerable children”,—[
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her amendment and my noble friend Lord Dundee, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. I turn first to Amendment 62 from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I note that she has raised this amendment to probe the need to expand the UK’s refugee family reunion rules. I will address each part of the amendment in turn.
Paragraph (a) of the proposed new clause seeks to allow refugees to reunite with their dependent children under the age of 25, as long as they were under 18 or unmarried at the time their parents left their country. The refugee family reunion guidance is clear that where a family reunion application does not meet the requirements of the Immigration Rules, caseworkers must consider whether there are any exceptional circumstances or compassionate factors that may justify a grant of leave outside the Immigration Rules. To this end, particular reference is given in the guidance to the example of children over 18 who are not leading an independent life and would otherwise be left alone in a dangerous situation. I can confirm that this discretion is used to allow dependent adult children to reunite with their parents in the UK where appropriate.
Paragraph (b) of the proposed new clause relates to refugees sponsoring parents. The noble Baroness will know that the Government have been very clear on their established position on this issue, as we are very concerned that allowing children to sponsor their parents would lead to more children being encouraged—even forced—to leave their families and risk dangerous journeys to the UK. However, discretion can be applied where a caseworker feels that a refusal of entry clearance would breach Article 8 of the ECHR or result in unjustifiably harsh consequences for the applicant or their family. Furthermore, Appendix FM of the Immigration Rules already allows refugees to sponsor adult dependent relatives living overseas to join them where, due to age, illness or disability, that person requires long-term personal care that can be provided only by relatives in the UK.
Paragraph (c) of the proposed new clause relates to refugees sponsoring dependent siblings under the age of 25, as long as they were under 18 or unmarried at the time their sibling left their country. I draw noble Lords’ attention to paragraph 319X of the Immigration Rules, which allows extended family, including siblings, to sponsor children to come here where there are serious and compelling circumstances. Again, consideration will also be given to any factors that might warrant a grant of leave outside the rules, where the rules are not met.
I hope this reassures the noble Baroness that there are vehicles within the existing policy framework to reunite the family members her amendment seeks to cover. An expansion of the policy could significantly increase the numbers who could qualify to come here from not just conflict regions but any country from which someone is granted protection. This would mean extended family members who themselves do not need protection being able to come here, which risks reducing our capacity to assist the most vulnerable refugees.
On numbers, I highlight that the UK has now issued over 29,000 family reunion visas in only the last five years, with more than half of those issued to children—a substantial number that should not be underestimated.
I agree with the intention of compassion and humanity that motivates Amendment 64, proposed by my noble friend Lord Dundee. However, we do not support this amendment, which seeks to create a humanitarian visa for EEA and Swiss nationals. It is unclear to me and the Government why those citizens have humanitarian needs that cannot be addressed by their own European country.
The Government have an excellent humanitarian record in assisting vulnerable people, including children. The UK is one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement states, resettling more refugees than any other country in Europe, and is in the top five countries worldwide. Since 2015 we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees, around half of whom have been children.
Once we have delivered our current commitments under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, we will consolidate our main schemes into a new global UK resettlement scheme. Our priority will be to continue to identify and resettle vulnerable refugees in need of protection, as identified and referred by the UNHCR. The focus of our humanitarian record is on those most in need, and I suggest that today’s amendment does not cover those most in need.
I turn to each proposed condition of the humanitarian visa in detail. Overall, it is unclear why, regarding the condition set out in subsection 3(a) of the proposed new clause, the UK should pick up healthcare provision for EEA and Swiss citizens, whether they are residing in their country of nationality or not, as these countries have excellent healthcare systems. However, our current discretionary leave policy allows us to grant leave to remain to individuals who do not qualify for leave to remain under the Immigration Rules but where there are exceptional or compassionate reasons for allowing them to remain in the UK, including on medical grounds and ill health.
The discretionary leave policy can, for example, address the needs of those who face a real risk of being exposed to a serious, rapid and irreversible decline in their state of health as a result of the absence of appropriate medical treatment in their home country. The policy also allows us to balance this care, and our international obligations under the ECHR, with the need to protect the finite resources of the NHS. The threshold for a person to be considered for discretionary leave on the basis of their medical condition is very clearly set out in our policy on medical claims and is intentionally high for this reason.
Furthermore, we are already dedicated to ensuring that vulnerable groups can access the NHS without charge. There are several groups applying for leave to remain in the UK who are exempt from the requirement to pay the immigration health charge, including asylum claimants and victims of modern slavery who apply for discretionary leave to remain. Those who are exempt from paying the IHC, or for whom the requirement is waived, are entitled to use the NHS generally without charge.
On the condition set out in proposed new subsection 3(b), the Government are committed to supporting vulnerable children. This amendment fails to recognise the safe and legal routes in the current immigration system for reuniting families, including the previously mentioned refugee family reunion rules, as well as Part 8 and Appendix FM of the Immigration Rules, all of which will remain in place at the end of the transition period.
The proposed amendment would also require the Government to create a new visa route for orphaned children who are EEA or Swiss nationals to come to the UK to be placed in local authority foster care where it is in their best interests. It is unclear why an orphaned child who is German, Italian or Greek, for example, should come to the UK on humanitarian grounds and be placed in local authority care here. These are safe European countries, and it is not appropriate for the UK to take children out of care in their own home countries and bring them here. Local authorities in the UK are already facing significant pressures, currently caring for over 5,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which is an increase of 146% since 2014.
On the condition set out in proposed new subsection 3(c), child dependants of those with leave in the UK are very well catered for in the Immigration Rules, which means that there is no need for primary legislation to create provision that already exists.
Turning to Amendment 79, I appreciate the noble Baroness’s intent behind the amendment, which seeks to create a means whereby, in the future, EEA and Swiss citizens will be able to join a spouse, partner, parent or a child in the UK who is either a British citizen or holds valid leave here, but without being subject to the current and established financial requirements for family migration.
There are a number of additional factors that I would like to turn to, which are also reasons for objecting to this amendment. I remind noble Lords that the minimum income requirement is based on in-depth analysis and advice from the independent Migration Advisory Committee. It did not find any clear case for differentiation in the level of the minimum income requirement between UK countries and regions. A single national threshold provides clarity and simplicity. Data also show that the gross median earnings in 2019 exceeded the minimum income requirement in every country and region of the UK. So it is true to say that the minimum income requirement is set at a suitable and consistent level and promotes financial independence, thereby avoiding burdens on the taxpayer and ensuring that families can participate sufficiently in everyday life to facilitate integration into British society.
In all family cases, the decision-maker will consider whether the Immigration Rules are otherwise met and, if not, will go on to consider whether there are exceptional circumstances that would render refusal a breach of Article 8 of the ECHR because it would result in unjustifiably harsh consequences for the applicant or their family. Each application is considered on its merits and on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the individual circumstances. The rules also give direct effect to the Secretary of State’s statutory duty to have regard, as a primary consideration, to a child’s best interests in making an immigration decision affecting them. In the future, British citizens and settled persons who want to be joined by family members who are EEA or Swiss citizens will benefit from these considerations without the need for Amendment 79.
Amendment 79 undermines the sound basis on which family migration to this country has been placed in recent years. It would circumvent the need for family migration to be on a basis whereby families are financially independent and able to contribute to the UK. It is for this reason that the income requirement was set out in the Immigration Rules. The Supreme Court has upheld this requirement as lawful and judged that it is not discriminatory. The amendment therefore seeks to contradict this ruling. There is no justifiable reason to avoid this requirement in the future by giving preferential treatment to family members based solely on their nationality. It is also unlikely to be lawful to do so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked if I had figures on the numbers who are affected, or who are projected to be affected. I do not have them on me. If we have them, I will provide them for her.
I hope that, on that basis, noble Lords are happy not to press their amendments.
I want to make some brief comments on Amendment 79. As the Minister just pointed out, the present income threshold for a spousal visa is designed to ensure that those coming to the UK for family reunion have enough resources to play a full part in British life and do not become a burden on the taxpayer. That is surely a sensible approach. As she mentioned, this has been to the Supreme Court, which ruled the policy to be lawful. Indeed, far from removing the threshold, there are, in certain cases, strong arguments for raising it.
The Migration Advisory Committee has said that, on average, for the family income to cover the cost of all public services, a higher threshold is required: namely, £25,700, rather than the current level of £18,600—a difference of £7,100. Even that threshold would not be enough, it says, for a non-EU household to make a net contribution to public finances. For them, the figure would be £38,000 a year. We must have in mind the impact of changes to these rules on the taxpayer and the reaction that they may have to that.
Finally, it is perhaps important to note that a reduction in the threshold would run entirely contrary to the Government’s 2017 election manifesto, which promised to raise the level of the threshold. That, of course, has still not been done.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I pretty much agree with him on every point.
On the higher threshold, the MAC will not be passive in commenting on the various aspects of the new immigration system, and I am sure that the threshold will be one of them.
My Lords, on the minimum income requirement, what is lawful is still not necessarily the system that many people want, including British citizens who, to their surprise, are affected by the rules. The Minister said that they were clear, but what counts towards assessing whether an income is £18,600 is a problem and has been for some time. It has also been changed from time to time, and the income of the person sponsored does not count. I do not have up-to-date figures, but it puts this arrangement out of reach for about half the wage earners in this country.
However, we are not here to debate the minimum income requirement, so I will go back to the family reunion point—it is all intertwined, of course. My noble friend Lord Bruce said he had been struck by how something that was not a problem can become one. Here, we are seeking to address something that has been a problem for some time and which will become a bigger problem. I am of course aware that Appendix FM and paragraph 319X of the Immigration Rules deal with exceptional circumstances. Sadly, the situations we are debating are not exceptional. To exercise discretion outside of the rules is an unsatisfactory position when we could have rules. The Minister talked about dependents being left alone. More often they are left with a single parent.
The organisations on the ground are concerned about this. This is not something manufactured in my head. It is an issue that we will have to go on pursuing. I thought that the humanitarian case to which the Minister subscribed was undermined at the end by her referring to numbers. Since the numbers are never going to be overwhelming, I would prefer to stick to the humanitarian case. However, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 62.
Amendment 62 withdrawn.