My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 15. Even without an impact assessment, we know that Clause 2 and subsequent clauses will ensure that anyone coming to this country not through one of the incredibly limited safe routes faces likely detention and removal. Irrespective of the persecution, torture or whatever they have been through in the past, this is what they will face coming to this country under the Bill.
We formulated these two amendments originally in relation to unaccompanied children, but it seemed wrong on reflection that these protections should be limited in that way. Therefore, Amendment 14 now aims to ensure that the Secretary of State will not have the duty to arrange for the removal at the age of 18 of any person who arrived in the UK as a child. Amendment 15 would ensure that if, under Clause 3(2), the Secretary of State made arrangements for the removal of a person from the UK and the person came to the UK as a child, then such removal could take place only if it was in the best interests of the child. Amendment 17 would achieve the same protection for unaccompanied children, and I very much support it.
These amendments and others are vital in addressing the profound concerns of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium. It points out that the Bill, and in particular Clause 3, are an affront to the refugee convention, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989. If unamended, the measures in the Bill will have severe consequences for the welfare and physical and mental health of extremely vulnerable children who have fled conflict, persecution and other unimaginable harms. We do not have an impact assessment, the detail or the numbers, but the Bill will affect every child arriving in the UK who has not come by one of the very limited safe routes. These apply to Ukraine and Hong Kong—to put things simply. If one comes from Afghanistan, Sudan or one of those other very high-risk places, there are simply no safe routes for one to take.
As the Bill stands, trafficked children will be locked out of refugee protection. Instead, they will be detained by the Home Office outside the care system in entirely unsuitable, unacceptable accommodation without proper medical or mental health care, and removed at the age of 18. Those children will include a substantial number who are brought here as modern slaves. They have not chosen to come here. They have not come here voluntarily but have been brought against their will. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have two amendments down, and I very much support Amendments 14, 18 and 27 in particular. “The best interests of the child” has become well known across the United Kingdom. It probably started in the United Nations’ rights of the child. It is to be found, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, in the Children Act 1989, and all lawyers who deal with children work with it. It has become a guiding light, even for Governments of all sorts. It really is quite extraordinary that the current Government have gone almost exactly opposite to the rights of the child and, more important than the rights, the best interests of the child.
I have to say that over all the years that I have seen the Conservative Party, with all my family before me as Conservatives, and one a Minister, I cannot believe I have ever seen a situation where children were as disregarded and downgraded as this Government have done in this Bill. I cannot believe it represents what I might call the basic philosophy of a great party that has been in power, this time, since 2010. I am truly sad about it.
I have put down Amendment 16A, which is a probing amendment, as I need to know what the impact of the law is. I believe this came, though not to me, from the Children’s Commissioner for England. The scenario that she had in mind was a mother who was pregnant, who came to this country, the child was born and the mother died. The child was placed in care as a baby—I would be surprised if the Government kept a baby and did not put it to the local authority; at least I would hope so—and the local authority, because there was no family, placed the child for adoption with a British family or a family resident in this country. What happens to that child under this Bill at the age of 18? As far as I understand it, a child adopted by a British family would not automatically have British citizenship or may not have it—I am no expert on immigration—at the age of 18. Is that child, by now a member of a new family in this country, to be removed at 18? That is a legal question to which I do not know the answer, and it is crucial that that answer is given to us before we get to Report.
It is not only the children who are probably adopted at birth. I rather hope the Government are not going to keep young children, because there will be other parents who die and leave a child without a parent in this country, particularly younger children. Are younger children, not 16 or 17 year-olds, going to be kept by the Government in some sort of accommodation? Surely those children would be put into the care of a local authority under the requirements of the Children Act 1989. I would be astonished if they were not taken. If they go into care and they are young, they are very likely to be placed in a foster family. If they are placed in a foster family as a young child, they will grow up going to an English school, like the baby, and living an English life.
If they come from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq or another country from which their family has fled, are they to be sent back there, where they may or may not have family? Or are they to be sent somewhere else, such as Rwanda? They may not necessarily be of white extraction, but they may not be of the extraction of the country to which they go, and they will not know a single person. When they have been brought up in a happy family in this country—most foster families are happy—I cannot believe that this Government can bring themselves to remove them at the age of 18. That is why I have put these two amendments down and strongly support the others.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 17, spoken to so powerfully by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to which I have added my name; but I support any amendment that serves to take out or restrict the duty/power to remove anyone who arrived as a child—in particular, that tabled by my noble friend Lord Dubs.
As the Children’s Commissioner has made clear:
“Children must be able to claim asylum”.
Indeed, it is only last year that the then Minister assured us that
“unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will not be subject to inadmissibility”—[
“Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are not suitable for the inadmissibility processes”.
So will the Minister explain why they are considered suitable now, and on what evidence this policy volte-face is based?
I put my name to Amendment 17 because it gives the Committee the opportunity to consider whether the Bill is compatible with the duty under the UNCRC, enshrined in Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, to treat the best interests of the child as a primary consideration—a crucial issue, which we have touched on already.
Recently, the Government told the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that they remained “fully committed” to upholding the principles set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That is, of course, welcome, yet the civil society alternative report on the UK’s implementation of the UN convention observed:
“The best interests principle is often applied tokenistically for children in the immigration system, with no evidence of a structured assessment or explanation, and decisions and policies are routinely made that are contrary to children’s well-being”.
The UN Committee, which reported on Friday, noted “with concern” that the best interests principle “is not systematically applied” in all matters affecting children and states that it should be. As the committee goes on observe, this Bill is no exception.
The UN committee’s general comment number 14 on the best interests principle makes it clear that its operation requires certain procedural guarantees and that
“the justification of a decision must show that the right has been explicitly taken into account. In this regard, States parties shall explain how the right has been respected in the decision, that is, what has been considered to be in the child’s best interests; what criteria it is based on; and how the child’s interests have been weighed against other considerations, be they broad issues of policy or individual cases”.
It spells out that
“primary consideration means that the child’s interests have high priority and not just one of several considerations. Therefore a larger weight must be attached to what serves the child best”.
This requires a child rights impact assessment that needs to be built in
“as early as possible in the development of policy”.
Yet here we are, on the second day in Committee, the Bill having already passed through the Commons and Second Reading in the Lords without any such impact assessment and, as I noted earlier, despite the Minister promising the Committee to take the matter back to his department nearly a fortnight ago. Where is it?
If it had been built in as early as possible in the development of the policy, it should have been available at the same time as the Bill was published, with an assessment of the impact on both accompanied and unaccompanied children. Instead, we have what can be described only as a superficial treatment of the best interests question in the equality impact assessment—which finally appeared on the morning of Second Reading in the Lords. The bland statement that the best interests duty is
“not the only factor that must be considered and other relevant factors must be taken into account” is simply not good enough. There is also no provision to assess the best interests of individual children, unaccompanied or accompanied, before the decision is made to deem them inadmissible.
That the duty to remove does not apply until the age of 18 for unaccompanied children, and that the government amendment sets out the main situations in which the power to remove before that age might be used, represent no more than partial and inadequate mitigation. The Children’s Commissioner has made it clear that the government amendment
“does not go far enough. The power could still be used to remove children in ‘other circumstances’ which are not detailed”.
Could the Minister therefore explain what the “other circumstances” are in which the power to remove unaccompanied children might be used? How will it be determined if it is safe for a child to be returned to their home country?
“is likely to engage Article 8 where an unaccompanied child … is not removed for potentially some years … in which time” they
“may have built some considerable family and/or private life” in the UK. The fact that the majority may be aged 16 or 17 does not alter that.
I found the justification for such interference with Article 8 quite breathtaking: namely, that it was
“in accordance with the law and necessary in a democratic society”.
Could the Minister explain how exactly treating children in this appalling way is necessary in a democratic society? This also applies to the duty to remove children once they reach the age of 18. ILPA reminds us that the Court of Appeal has observed:
“It is not easy to see that risks of the relevant kind to a person who is a child would continue until the eve of that [18th] birthday, and cease at once the next day”.
A number of health and social work organisations have drawn attention to the likely impact on a child’s mental, and possibly physical, health of knowing they will be removed once they reach 18. It will undermine their education and any chances of integration. Try and put yourself in the shoes of a child or young person who knows that they are here only on sufferance and that the clock is running down towards their removal. It is no way to live a life at any age, but particularly not your childhood.
The Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium notes that, in the past, unaccompanied children were typically
“granted temporary leave to remain until they turned 17½”.
As a consequence, the fear of removal meant that many children disappeared underground
“at extreme risk of exploitation and … danger of self-harm” and even suicide.
This fear is echoed by the Children’s Commissioner, who has warned that the duty to remove at 18
“will make it incredibly hard to safeguard unaccompanied children, as they will likely go missing rather than be deported, leaving them very vulnerable to exploitation”.
These considerations, especially the dangers of exploitation in this country, based on experience, must surely trump the hypothetical fears used to justify the duty by Ministers—that, otherwise, children will be exploited by smugglers and traffickers. Again, this point was made by the Children’s Commissioner in her opposition to the duty to remove at 18.
According to the Refugee Council’s impact assessment, we could be talking about 13,000 to nearly 15,000 unaccompanied children per year. Let us not forget that, as the Children’s Society reminds us, these are children who are scared and traumatised, and who need security, support and the opportunity to experience their childhoods.
The Immigration Minister tried to reassure MPs that
“all the Ministers involved in the Bill’s preparation have thought very carefully about how we can protect children”.—[
But I am afraid he has failed to reassure the Children’s Commissioner, international human rights organisations, medical and social work organisations and children’s and refugee organisations. He has also failed to reassure the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has called on the Government to “urgently amend” the Bill to abandon all provisions
“that would have the effect of violating children’s rights under the Convention and the 1951 Refugee Convention”.
Thus, if the Government genuinely want to protect children, they will at the very least accept some of the amendments proposed today and subsequently. But really, they should remove children entirely from the scope of the Bill, as called for by UNICEF.
My Lords, it is a challenge for a mere male to follow the three previous speakers, but my name is on Amendment 22, so I must attempt it. Amendment 22 would prevent unaccompanied children being automatically deemed inadmissible if they came by an irregular route.
Overall, 86% of the unaccompanied children currently going through the asylum process are given permission to stay, including nearly 100%—over 99%—from Afghanistan, over 99% from Eritrea and over 96% from Sudan. But only 6% of these children granted protection and found to have a valid case for asylum here came through the official government schemes. They had to come by an irregular route because there was no other way for them. Putting these two facts together, the Bill asks us to rule out the possibility of even considering the vast majority of unaccompanied children’s cases. That seems not to be in keeping with British tradition, and it is certainly not in keeping with Articles 3 and 22 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989.
Therefore, although I support all the amendments in this group, I strongly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to which I added my name.
My Lords, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke movingly about her connections with the Conservative Party. Along with my good and noble friend Lord Tugendhat, I was privileged to enter the other place on
I apologise for not being able to take part at Second Reading, because of my wife’s illness. This is my first full day back, as it were, although I will be off again soon. I thought of those great figures of the past: my parliamentary hero, William Wilberforce, as well as Shaftesbury and others. They could not have signed up to what is before us today.
In our party, we have a particular responsibility to defend our heritage; it has made it a great party and enabled it to govern longer and more frequently than any other. That should make us both proud and humble. We have to be careful, having had a very turbulent and difficult few years, with one Prime Minister who disgraced his inheritance and another who was so briefly in office that she was able only to display her incompetence. We have a great heritage; we have a duty to defend it and to imbue the legislation we bring before Parliament with some of the traditional Conservative values. Those values are not uniquely ours; we share them with other great parties. We need to stand up for our history, and I hope that, when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply, he will realise that some of the points that have been made in this very brief debate are inimical with our Conservative heritage. We have to recognise that. I beg my noble friend on the Front Bench—
I hope my noble friend is listening, because I hope he will realise that he too is an inheritor of a great Conservative tradition; we must not be a Government who turn our back on that. Of course, the problem that the Bill is seeking to deal with is real, but it can be dealt with using a greater degree of sensitivity, generosity and, I dare say, Christianity. I urge him to take on board the points that have been made this afternoon, particularly by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
My Lords, I will return to the amendments, particularly Amendment 22. I think that the Committee will permit me to refer briefly to the impact assessment argument, because it has a particular relevance to Amendment 22. The charity Safe Passage, some time after the Bill was first published, sent a freedom of information request to the Home Office to ask about the number of unaccompanied children who would be affected by the Bill—that is to say, those arriving in the UK through irregular means, including via small boats. The response stated that
“the Home Office does not hold the information you have requested. Whilst our reporting centres can ascertain the age of someone at the point of an event, we cannot establish from our electronic datasets who is accompanied or unaccompanied”.
That means the Government have no idea of the number of unaccompanied children that will be impacted by the provisions of the Bill.
I do not think that I need to say any more—because the argument about the impact assessment has been well aired already—except for one further thought. If the Government have no idea what the effect of the Bill will be, or any particular part of the Bill, I do not understand why they are putting it forward. That point has already been made, but it still puzzles me.
The point of my amendment is to exempt from inadmissibility claims for unaccompanied children, as has already been referred to in some of the other amendments. Under Clause 4(2), those claims will not be considered; they will have no right of appeal; and there will be no possibility of considering such a claim. Although the argument has already been put forward in some of the other amendments, it is a fundamental point, because the children from the countries with very high grant rates for refugee status are forced to make dangerous journeys because there are very limited options for safe routes to the UK. Many of the children come from those countries, and, of those children who have had their cases determined, the vast majority were permitted to stay and rebuild their lives in the UK under the present legislation. That means that the equivalent of those children who are now coming would not be allowed to stay, regardless of the merits of their claim under either the 1951 Geneva convention or the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I want to make two or three other points. If a child is to be removed on reaching their 18th birthday, unless they are actually in detention they will quite sensibly say, “I do not want to go back. I am frightened of going back to where I escaped from”. They will disappear—of course they will. We would all do that if we were in their position; we would not hesitate. It seems to me that we are in danger of saying that we are going to lock them up until their 18th birthday before removing them. It is a preposterous policy.
The Government’s history on children has been somewhat mixed. I remember in the 2016 Act I put forward an amendment for unaccompanied children to come here, and it eventually passed both Houses—it went back once or twice—and became part of the Act. The Government then said: “Ah, but it applies only to 480 children”. That was an arbitrary figure, plucked out of the air, for which there was no rationale at all, except that the Government said that local authorities could not provide foster places, which was quickly disproved.
We then got on to the 2017 Act, at the time when the future of the Dublin treaty—or certainly the parts under which asylum-seeking children in one EU country could claim to join their families in another EU country—was in jeopardy. We passed an amendment in this House that the Government should negotiate to retain the provisions of the treaty. That was eventually accepted, having gone through both Houses. In the 2019 Act, the Government simply removed it. Without wishing to go into long periods of history, I was incensed about all these things but particularly incensed about that.
An upshot was that I was invited to a meeting with three government Ministers and seven officials, including one from the Cabinet Office, to engage in a discussion about the rights of children. I found that quite flattering—I thought the odds of 10:1 were quite favourable to me, given who was on the other side. I was given assurances. One of the Commons Ministers said: “Don’t you trust me?” I looked him in the eye and I lied: “Yes, I trust you, but I don’t trust the Government”—so it was half true—“And anyway, who is to say that you will be in your job in few weeks’ time?” He was not; he was moved on, and I am not sure whether he is in the Government now or not. But I was given certain assurances that were not adhered to, and the number of unaccompanied children who came fell rapidly from that point on.
The Government have in the past given assurances about unaccompanied children and they simply have not stuck to them. That is why I believe that this amendment is important. It will protect the rights of some of the most vulnerable young people fleeing from appalling horrors such as war, enforced conscription into armies, threats of torture and parents being killed. These are terrible things, and we are saying to them that it they get to this country other than by a prescribed route, of which there are hardly any, we will not consider their claim. That is appalling.
My Lords, I support the amendments in this group because they are at the heart of whether or not we are acting in conformity with our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which I believe we are not. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has most helpfully brought to our attention the view of the committee set up to watch over the application by all 192 members of the UN to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its view is negative.
I am well aware that the United Nations does not have any enforcement powers in this matter—sadly, perhaps—but that does not mean that the British Government, which is usually a member of the UN in good standing and good faith, can simply ignore the views of the committee that was set up to watch over this legislation. To do so will have quite serious consequences in a much wider field, because there are plenty of members of the United Nations who shelter behind the lack of enforceability of the UN, whether it is in the Security Council or elsewhere, to do things that we, quite rightly, condemn outright, whether in Ukraine, the Taiwan Strait or wherever. The cost to this country of simply riding roughshod over our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is therefore quite serious.
The Minister will no doubt remind us that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is not incorporated into our domestic law. That is correct, but it was ratified by this country. How do we know that it was ratified, and how do we know that it covers all the provisions which this legislation is at variance with? Because we made two or three rather small, explicit reservations from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, none of which is relevant to the present matters we are debating—they relate to enrolment in the Armed Forces, education and so on. We accepted all the rest, and we ratified it and told the United Nations that we were going to apply all the rest. Now, we are going back on that.
I hope the Minister will not simply tell us that his opinion and that of the Home Office is that we are not infringing any of these obligations. I do not honestly think that that cuts any ice at all. I would be delighted if he would take, one by one, the articles cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and my noble friend Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, and explain why he has a different interpretation of those provisions. I say that more in hope than expectation, because the Minister does not seem to like answering specific questions of that sort. However, I hope on this occasion he will overcome his reluctance to do that and will address these problems. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a serious matter. It is bringing better conditions for children worldwide. It is being used as an instrument to strike down all sorts of discrimination, and here we are building up new sorts.
My Lords, I have two amendments in this group. I, and we on these Benches, agree with pretty much everything that has been said, and with the specific amendments, including the first, introduced very succinctly by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.
I shall go back almost to the beginning of the debate. I do not come from a Conservative family—rather far from it, in fact; they were good News Chronicle-reading Liberals from Manchester—but they would have agreed with everything that the noble and learned Baroness said. I wonder whether, like me, she finds it particularly offensive that when the issue of the best interests of the child are raised, what the Government so often say is, “Of course we observe the best interests of the child. Of course we always take the best interests into account”, even to the extent, I may say, of sometimes saying that in immigration law best interests are paramount, which sadly they are not—not quite.
Amendment 18, also about unaccompanied children, would address the position—this seems to be a bit of a minnow compared with some of the points that have been made—when the Secretary of State has not been able to make arrangements with her, as I am bound to say, or his self-imposed duty to remove someone within six months, or, in the case of a child who arrives unaccompanied, within six months after the child has ceased to be unaccompanied. The Government must face up to what should happen if the Secretary of State sets herself a duty and then does not comply with it. This amendment would provide for regulations to except these cohorts. Though Parliament obviously could not amend the regulations, at least it would provide for the position.
Amendment 27 would go very much with the grain of other amendments in the group, and with the grain of how, in this country, we are beginning to understand the position of British children who have been in care, when they reach 18. Eighteen is not a cliff edge. The knowledge of young people’s development is increasing, and we know scientifically, and not just as a matter of common sense and our own everyday experience, that one does not go from being a child to adulthood and full maturity overnight. British care leavers may struggle to cope alone, and it is recognised that support is needed. But for a child turning 18, when their experience encompasses whatever has led to them fleeing from home and, no doubt, a horrendous journey and then a sort of half-life here, to be sent to a country where—as I think the noble and learned Baroness said—there are no connections, of which they have no knowledge, and where people are likely to be of a very different culture, with risks to them, is almost unimaginable. We should be helping them recover from the trauma. Instead, the Bill makes it harder for a child to recover from the trauma of both his experiences in the country of origin and the flight—it adds to and exacerbates it.
My Lords, I support the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lady Meacher, my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I begin by referring to a meeting that my noble friend Lord Singh and I held with Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, quite recently. She had personally seen children coming off the boats. The Refugee Council found that, of the 45,000 people who made the journey in 2022, some 8,700 were children—one in five of the overall number. In response to the questions put by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, perhaps the Minister could confirm the numbers.
Dame Rachel has also visited the accommodation in which many of these children are placed. I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. When the Children’s Commissioner was consulted, was she consulted about this Bill? How did she respond? How does he respond to her view that the Bill drives a “coach and horses” through the Children Act 1989?
The position of children should certainly concentrate our minds. My noble and learned friend perhaps knows better than anyone in this House, as a former head of the Family Law Division, how important it is that we have proper cognisance of the effects of law on children. I asked Dame Rachel about the origins and stories of some of the children whom she had met, to which my noble and learned friend referred as well. Some had travelled from Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iran; some had taken journeys that lasted a whole year; some had been left as orphans; and some had been traumatised by war. Many told horrific stories. For instance, she described the story of an Iranian boy who watched his parents being killed and who made the long and arduous journey here to safety. She also referred to a Down’s syndrome child left on their own. She said that decisions about their treatment and future were being taken by inappropriately low-ranking officials who had “no understanding of safeguarding”. Will the Minister urgently look into this question about whether safeguarding criteria are different from the safeguarding used in children’s homes? Are the provisions in the Bill compliant with the duties contained in the education Acts, and are they Gillick compliant? Does the Minister recognise the Children’s Commissioner’s description of the Bill as a “traffickers’ charter”?
No child should be assumed to be an adult—a point made very well a moment ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. There is no cliff edge. There seems to be an assumption woven into the web and weave of this Bill that there is a magic moment when you cease to be a child and become an adult. The position of children should certainly be put into the impact assessment, which we all wait to see with great anticipation. But it is not simply an impact assessment that has been missing from the legislative scrutiny to which I referred earlier. Only one Select Committee—the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member—has had the chance to scrutinise this Bill, and it has had to do so at a crazy pace, with many of our meetings clashing with the Bill’s proceedings. All being well, it will reach its final iteration tomorrow—not, I am glad to say, “in due course”. This is simply no way to make legislation. When we legislate in haste, we end up repenting at leisure.
At Second Reading, I referred to my misgivings about a number of aspects of the Bill, and among these was the treatment of children: the subject of these amendments. They are affected by every aspect of the Bill, which clearly infringes the rights of children set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, referred to by my noble friend Lord Hannay.
The Home Office says, as its justification for doing this, that it is protecting the best interests of children by seeking to deter them and the adults accompanying them from embarking on these journeys in the first place. This is a straw man argument. It relies on the assumption that the child or adult knew in advance how dangerous the journey would be and assumes that, in any event, the journey would be less dangerous than, say, staying in Sudan, where millions are now displaced; or think of the plight of women in Iran; or think of those in Nigeria who are facing execution because of their beliefs or orientation, or facing genocidal attacks from Boko Haram. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not revolve around such calculations.
The desire for deterrence cannot negate or supplant the duty of the UK and this Government to protect all children—every child, whatever their origins—within our jurisdiction. How a country treats its children is a mark of whether that country deserves to describe itself as civilised. How do convention duties square with indefinite detention in whatever place the Secretary of State and her officials deem appropriate and for however long she decides is reasonably necessary before she maybe decides that they should be cast out? How can our convention rights be squared with dispatching children to far-flung places without any true idea of what circumstances will await them there? Who will verify that appropriateness? What will be the criteria? How will such assessments be undertaken?
Too many of the Bill’s provisions relating to children are vague and insufficiently rigorous. The Bill puts on to a statutory footing the provision of accommodation for unaccompanied children, but then fails to define what form such accommodation must consist of. It is as if we have learned nothing from the endless ordeals of children in institutional care. I repeat: why is Home Office accommodation not being made subject to the duties set out in the Children Act 1989? Why are standards or requirements not set out in the Bill itself? I ask this against a backdrop of the Home Office accommodating unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hostels since 2021. Can the Minister remind us how many of those children have gone missing? How many remain missing? How can the Minister justify the provisions to take a child from local authority accommodation, which is subject to the 1989 Act, and put them into Home Office accommodation, which is not? There are also convention implications from age assessment, not least invasive body searches of children who may have undergone trauma or have been subjected to abuse. Is that Gillick compliant?
We should be clear that these and other provisions mean that the Bill is likely to fall short of compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also likely to fall short under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and potentially Article 3, which deals with prohibition of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment. Has the Minister also considered Article 22 of the convention and any use of powers to remove a child without first considering their asylum claim? These are crucial questions; if they cannot be resolved here in Committee, they will certainly have to be resolved when we reach Report. I hope the Minister will be able to give the Committee the courtesy of a reply to some of these questions today.
My Lords, I rise with some hesitation after so many speeches—such powerful speeches—from every corner of your Lordships’ House. Having attached my name, however, to two amendments here—Amendment 17, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and Amendment 27, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—I will make two points.
First, I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that no children who arrive as refugees should be covered by this Bill—indeed, no one should be covered by this Bill—but there is a special case to be made for unaccompanied children who have no adult with them to support them. I invite Members of your Lordships’ House to consider what it would be like if, tomorrow, you were dropped into a foreign country where you do not speak the language—or speak it very imperfectly—you have no resources and you know nobody. While you have decades of life experience, think how difficult it would be to cope. Then imagine what it would be like for an 18 year-old who has known only a life of war, torture and suffering; who thought they had found safety but then were thrown out again.
Secondly, I want to pick up a point that the Minister made in the previous group. He suggested that this Bill was the result of an emergency situation that had suddenly arisen overnight and that this was the excuse for why we did not have an impact assessment. Of course, what we have is a situation that has been developing over a decade or more. We saw people seeking to come across the channel, including—since we are focusing on the many unaccompanied children—people getting underneath the axels into sealed lorries or under trains and, all too often, dying as a result.
I am going to go back to 2016—seven years ago—when I went to a memorial service for one of those people, a 15 year-old called Masud. He was an Afghan who died in the back of a lorry trying to get to the UK to be with his sister. This picks up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, about the lack of means for such children to get here legally. Masud should have been able to get here, but he could not. He took his chances and he died. Had he made it, think about where he would be now. Masud, as a 15 year-old, would have had three years—or maybe more—in our education system. He would have been part of our society and contributing. Imagine, however, a Masud who arrives here after this Bill comes into operation—this picks up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, among others. What is Masud going to do just before his 18th birthday? What would any of us do? He is going to have to go into the black economy or the grey economy, which we know our hostile economy has thrust so many people into already: into the illegal car washes or into the illegal marijuana farms, where recently we saw four Vietnamese men, almost certainly victims of modern slavery, die in horrific conditions. Thrust into the gig economy—there has recently been coverage about this—you can rent an identity to be a delivery driver for a night, all under the carpet and all open to abuse and exploitation. Is that what we really want to do to children? Is that what we really want to do to our society: to make a society in which that segment of it grows and grows? As others have said, there is no way that the Government are going to be able to make the removals that they say they are seeking to do.
My Lords, I have the Clause 3 stand part amendment in my name. A lot of the words already spoken have covered some very important parts of this clause. At its heart, of course, the clause does not protect unaccompanied asylum-seeking children; it just defers their removal. Such children will not be able to start to rebuild their lives or focus on their futures because of the threat of removal. I would like to look at a couple of issues—some of which have been touched on already but which are in this clause—that will need explanation from the Government and understanding if I believe them to be the truth.
“The UK remains fully committed to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”.
Further, they added that they are
“committed to ensuring that the best interests of all children are a primary consideration in any decision that affects them”.
So, my first question to the Minister is: do the Government stand by that second statement: that all children are a primary consideration in any decision that affects them?
There are four problems that I think the Government have to face up to. The first is that the UNCRC requires the best interests of children to be made a primary consideration in all decisions which affect them, including, importantly, when passing legislation that affects them. My second question is: do the Government believe they are acting in the best interests of children as defined by the United Nations?
The Bill has no exception for children of any age, however much they have suffered en route. The Bill in no way seeks to consider their individual circumstances. There is no requirement for the Home Secretary to consider their circumstances or their best interests, or to make those best interests a primary consideration before making a decision to remove them under Clauses 5 and 7. My third question is: how does the Government’s proposal in the Bill meet the requirement in the United Nations convention for a duty to make the best interests of children a primary consideration before a decision to remove is taken? There are some serious questions on that matter that the Government need to answer.
This clause also has a sequence of catch-all regulations, with detail about them yet to be provided. The DPRRC report we have before us notes that the Government’s argument for not giving detail or any further information is that there can be only positive results from further exceptions. However, these regulations could narrow the scope of exceptions. The fact that the detail or purpose is not specified is deeply concerning, especially as the regulations will enable the Government to amend primary legislation or its effects. This House has recently expressed great concern about the use of such powers. Clearly, the Government must have some decision-making choices they are not ready to tell us about, but we need to know more about what they are trying to do.
Clause 3(1) does not provide any complete exemption for unaccompanied children from the statutory obligation to expel someone who is caught by the conditions in Clause 2. First, the exception to Clause 2(1) provided by Clause 3(1) is time limited. An unaccompanied child is granted exception to the statutory obligation under Clause 2(1) only for such time as they are and remain unaccompanied and a child. Could the Minister tell the Committee that the powers in Clause 3(7) do not and cannot give the Secretary of State power to exempt from removal where Clause 2(1) applies? This would mean that there is no real exception, except within the under-18 space that the young person occupies.
Secondly, the exception in this clause is not an exception to the power of the Home Secretary to expel the child. As Clause 3(2) makes clear, nothing in the Bill constrains—and still less removes—the Home Secretary’s power to expel unaccompanied children.
Thirdly, Clause 2(7), the previous clause, makes it clear that even if an unaccompanied child is given limited leave to enter or remain, the child is still to be treated as meeting the fourth condition in Clause 2. The other three conditions are all ones that, once met, cannot be unmet. In other words, a grant of limited leave to enter or remain to a child does not affect the application of any part of the Bill.
Fourthly, even though the unaccompanied child is temporarily relieved of the obligation on the Home Secretary to expel them, the statutory purpose requires removal, which remains. The Minister will have to explain to us how the best interests of the child—a statutory requirement—stand when measured against this clause.
Clause 3(7) empowers the Home Secretary to provide for other exceptions to be made by regulations, but this is only for exceptions to Clause 2(1). All in all, even if allowed to remain in the United Kingdom while a child, unaccompanied children will live in the knowledge that on their 18th birthday they will be subject to removal, regardless of their protection needs or the life they may have built in the UK. That also means that the skills that those children will have learned in this country will never be available to this country in their future or in the future of this country.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak in this debate when I came into the Chamber this afternoon, but I heard the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—a powerful beginning to this debate—who spoke about the accommodation provided now for unaccompanied migrant children. I was further motivated to take part having listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in which he referred to these same matters.
Since 2021, 4,500 unaccompanied migrant children have been placed in hotels, some as young as 10. Some 200 have gone missing and have not been found. In Britain, when a child goes missing, does it not affect all of us? Is it not the first item on the nine o’clock news and on the front page of every newspaper? However, 200 of these children have gone missing and have not been found again. A recent whistleblower who worked at the Home Office-run hotel in Brighton highlighted the harm that he saw these children facing. He said they were being picked up in the streets, presumably by traffickers, and have not been found again. He said that there were reports that the children had been subjected to emotional abuse and degrading treatment by the staff in the hotels.
Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 gives local authorities—and them alone—statutory protection powers for children. I have been asking for some time by what power the Government put these children in hotels, ignoring Section 20, and what Act of Parliament gives them that power. I have asked a number of Oral Questions and four or five Written Questions. In my latest one I asked His Majesty’s Government
“under which legal provision the Home Office has assumed child protection powers for unaccompanied migrant children”.
The Minister did me the courtesy of replying:
“We expect local authorities to meet their statutory obligations to children from the date they arrive in the UK. The best place for these young people is and will remain within a local authority care placement”.
On that, we are in total agreement. He went on:
“The Home Office is not currently in the position of corporate parent to any unaccompanied child”.
My question is simple. By what Act of Parliament—by what power—do the Government ignore Section 20, place these vulnerable children in hotels and leave them? Two hundred have gone missing. Shame on us.
My Lords, I want to show the importance of impact assessments. This goes back slightly to the discussion we were having under the last group of amendments, because only one impact assessment for the Bill has been delivered: the equality impact assessment, which talks about age. That is why I support many amendments in this grouping, particularly those in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.
Once you read the equality impact assessment, it starts giving you a real indication of what the Government’s thinking is for putting children—whether unaccompanied or with families—into this Bill and the impact they believe it is going to have. The first issue, they say, is that it is not direct discrimination against these young people; they call it indirect discrimination. It is quite direct when you are not allowed to stay in the country; it is quite direct when you are going to be detained at the will of the Home Secretary; and it seems quite direct that when you get to the age of 18 you are going to be told to go, never come back and never claim British citizenship. That does not seem like indirect discrimination; it seems very direct.
The equality impact assessment says:
“Any differential impact on these age groups is the result of a person’s conduct and is justified and proportionate in order to achieve the legitimate aims of controlling migration and reducing crime”.
The aim of putting children in is to cut not just migration but crime, which is quite interesting, because on
“To ask His Majesty's Government, for each police force in each of the last two years, how many crimes were committed by people who arrived by small boat crossings; and for each police force, what percentage of total crimes committed that figure represents”.
Based on the Government’s equality impact assessment, they will have those figures, because it is going to reduce crime. The answer I got from the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, was:
“The Home Office collects and publishes information on the number of crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales. This information can be accessed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-recorded-crime-open-data-tables. The Home Office does not hold information on perpetrators of crime who have arrived by small boat crossings”.
There is no evidence. I ask the Minister: what evidence do the Government have that including children, either accompanied or unaccompanied, will reduce the crime rate in the UK and by what percentage? It is in their equality impact assessment, so surely the Government have figures for that, otherwise it is just untrue—it is absolutely false.
The great and fascinating thing about this equality impact assessment is that it says: “The Department’s view”—not its evidence or empirical studies, but its “view”—
“is that the Bill should”— not will but “should”—
“have a deterrent effect which can”— not will or must, but “can”—
“result in fewer unaccompanied children arriving in the UK by dangerous and unlawful means”.
That is a nice sentence. There is no evidence; there is no study; there are no figures. It is a statement. I did some research, and I am very pleased that the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium has also done some, because the only significant research I can see was done in 2018 by the UNHCR, which was called Destination Anywhere. It was a review on the reasons why unaccompanied children choose the UK. I use the word “choose” inadvertently. The evidence does not support the Government’s assumption—this equality impact assessment is an assumption, not fact, as the words show—that an effective ban on asylum claims for children will stop children travelling regularly to the UK.
For example, the UNHCR’s extensive research on the reasons unaccompanied children travel to the UK outlined a complex and nuanced picture. It found that children sought protection from violence and following the detention or disappearance of family. Most when they started out did not know where they were going. They did not have a label on saying “Please make sure this child gets safely to the UK”. Many had travelled with groups of youngsters for safety and companionship, often following peers. Those trafficked were susceptible to re-trafficking and even entering state care. Some suffered mistreatment en route. There was no map between their home and the UK.
What empirical evidence—not mere assumptions but facts—have the Government based their equality impact assessment on? The policies that we are now dealing with are based on their facts and their equality impact assessment. Therefore, the Committee must understand whether it is assumption or fact. The provision for young people being in this Bill, based on an assumption from the Government that it will stop them coming here, does not seem to stand up to the evidence when it is examined by others.
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Touhig, I was not going to speak to this group of amendments because the arguments have been put so brilliantly. However, I cannot remain silent. I will be brief.
At Second Reading, I said that I could not believe that we were debating such a piece of legislation in a British Parliament. This afternoon, I cannot believe that we are having to argue for basic, decent, fundamental principles for those who are most vulnerable, and particularly for unaccompanied children who, as others have said, have left their country because they had no other choice. The reality of what they were facing drove them from their families, from their homes, and from a place where they felt that they would be safe and where they belonged.
I merely say this to the Government. The Government have two options: to work with those who have tabled these amendments to make a disgusting piece of legislation less so, or to explain to me and other noble Lords why these amendments are unacceptable and how this Bill will not diminish the rights of the most vulnerable children who present themselves on our shores.
My Lords, having listened to the debate, I have three questions for the Minister.
First, if I understand the Government’s position correctly, the use of punitive measures against unaccompanied children in this Bill is for a deterrent effect. That is what the Minister said at Second Reading, and it has been a consistent line. For the Government to come to that view, they must have information about the numbers of unaccompanied children that the Bill will affect—otherwise it would have been impossible for them to have determined that this policy will be a deterrent. What is the Home Office’s core estimate of how many unaccompanied children it will require facilities for under this Bill? I know that the Minister has that information in his pack. He must tell the Committee what it is.
My second question is on the Government’s assertion that this measure complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Government say that they will act in the interests of the child. At the moment, the UN checklist is the mechanism used to determine the best interests of the child. Will the Minister commit to the Committee that the UN checklist for the determination of the best interests of the child will be used under the terms of this Bill? If the Government’s plan is for it not to be used, like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others I fear that they will not be acting in the interest of the child according to the UN convention. This is particularly relevant given that the policy shift is moving away from determining what will be the safety of a child and towards what is considered to be a safe country. That is a very radical change. For example, there are a number of countries on the Government’s safe list that they are today advising against all travel to. Therefore, a British official, or any British charity, may seek to accompany an unaccompanied child back to a country that is considered to be safe while the Foreign Office advises against all travel to that area. How can that be consistent? Last year, I visited the Rwanda reception centre in Kigali. There were no children’s facilities. Can the Minister confirm that there are now?
My third question is this. The Government’s fact sheet on children states that:
“For any unaccompanied child who is removed when under 18, we will ensure that adequate reception arrangements are in place where the child is to be removed to”.
That is not true. What in this Bill provides for the assurance and the duty that there will be reception arrangements in place for any unaccompanied child? There is no mention of that in the Bill. The fact sheet cannot be correct if the Bill does not state that this will be the case. If the Minister can tell me where in the Bill there is a duty to ensure that there are reception facilities and reception arrangements in place for a child to be removed to, I would be very grateful.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville added her name to Amendments 14 and 22 but is having to deal with matters in Grand Committee this afternoon, and means no disrespect to this Committee. My noble friend Lord German comprehensively set out the problems with this clause and why it should not stand part of the Bill. Having said that, we also support all the amendments in this group.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
If the Government are serious about implementing the provisions of this Bill in relation to children, what would Mandela have said about our society’s soul? An infant, or even a child yet to be born, brought into the UK by a parent and by what the Home Office calls an irregular route, or an unaccompanied child not thinking of all the consequences—because children, some as young as 10 years-old, do not think about all the consequences of their actions—will never be able to acquire the right to remain in this country and will never be able to work. They will potentially be detained until they are 18 years-old and then deported. Many of them will have had no say in determining the circumstances that they find themselves in or will not have thought about the consequences of their actions. How can the proposals in the Bill be the actions of a society that describes itself as civilised?
My Lords, I support the amendments tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Hamwee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my noble friend Lord Dubs. They go to the heart of what many of us are concerned about: what this says about our country and our conformity to various conventions and international treaties that we have signed up to and agreed to be part of. I want to reiterate the importance of that. I will not go on at great length about it because I have spoken at this Dispatch Box, and will again, about there being a huge issue around compatibility with various conventions in this aspect—children—and with some of the workability and practicality of what the Government are setting out to do.
I join the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Scriven, in particular, in saying that it is quite extraordinary to read in the Explanatory Memorandum that the department’s view is that the Bill should have a deterrent effect, which can result in fewer unaccompanied children arriving in the UK by dangerous and unlawful means. Nobody wants anybody to come by dangerous means to a particular country, in this case ours, but it is just an assertion. It is the departmental view. No evidence, as the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Purvis, mentioned, is provided. Of course—without going back to the debate that we had—we have no impact assessment to make any judgments about any of that. I ask the Minister to clarify what that sentence means, what the evidence is for that, and how the Government have come to this view that the Bill should have a deterrent effect. It does all read, to a certain extent, as though the Government are justifying these actions by using unaccompanied children as a deterrent, which I think cannot be the Government’s intention. But that is certainly how it reads, and I think the Minister should put on the record that that is not the case, even though that is certainly what some of the refugee children’s charities have said.
I will ask the Minister a couple of specific questions. How old are the unaccompanied children we are talking about here? I think it was my noble friend Lady Lister who mentioned a child of eight. Some 5,200 unaccompanied children arrived last year. What has happened to them? What is the age range of those children? I think that knowing what has happened in the past would help us make some judgments and assessments about the future.
As my noble friend Lord Touhig mentioned, I think it is appropriate for us to ask what progress the Government have made in finding the 200 children who have been lost to the system. As I have said before, the Home Office is not a corporate parent. My own view is that if it was, it would be prosecuted for losing children. If a human parent lost children, we would be incandescent about it. But the Government have lost 200, and in their equality impact assessment, they warn that they are worried and concerned about children absconding from their care.
Will the Minister take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs? Supposing an unaccompanied child is 12, are the Government expecting them to be deported when they are 18, or is there an age limit for that? Have they got to be under 16? It is Committee, so these are the sorts of detailed questions we ask, because otherwise we will not understand how the Government are arriving at their policies. The Government say that if they do not have a right to be here, they will be deported when they reach their 18th birthday. When does that start from? That is why I am asking about age—you can be here for seven years, go to school, and at 18 you will be deported. That was the point the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was making; those are the practicalities of it. Does the Minister expect that if a child aged 17 was in that situation they would wait until they were 18 for the Government to come and find them and deport them? These are detailed questions, which, although we are in the main Chamber, are the point of Committee, to try to understand the practicalities and workability of the situation.
The Government made the amendment to say that there will be exceptions; there will be no requirement on the Secretary of State to deport or to remove—which is the Government’s preferred term—unaccompanied children, but there will be exceptional circumstances, which will be made by regulation. The Government said this would be for reasons of family reunion, and also if a safe country was identified. It would be helpful if the Minister said a little bit more about how that all works in practice, how that information would be found out, and what other circumstances there are, because those are just two examples. They are not the only exceptions; the Government say there are those two, but there may be other exceptional circumstances. What other exceptional circumstances does the Minister think that would mean?
Can the Minister clarify for us the Government’s policy with respect to the use of force with unaccompanied children and how they will be, if you like, kept in care and looked after? What are the Government’s provisions with respect to that?
To go back to the point made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, one of the great things that the Conservative Government did was stopping the detention of children. It was a massive step forward; I think it was the Cameron Government who did that, and said it was a disgrace that we were detaining children. Why have the Government gone back on one of the most radical and good reforms that the Cameron Government introduced? I think it would be interesting to hear the answers to some of those questions—I can hear the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, saying “Why?”—as again, it is not only principle but practicality. I think we all look forward to the Minister’s answers.
My Lords, Clause 3 sets out the power to remove unaccompanied children. This power will be exercised only in very limited circumstances ahead of an individual reaching adulthood. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, outlined, these include: reunion with the child’s parent; where the person is to be removed to a safe country of origin; where the person has not made a protection or human rights claim; or in other circumstances specified in regulations. If an unaccompanied child arrives in the UK illegally from a safe country of origin, they may be returned to their country of origin before they are 18. Of course, any such decision would be taken on a case-by-case basis.
I reassure the Committee that officials and Ministers take these decisions very seriously, with due concern for the sensitivities that have rightly been outlined by the Committee. But we need also to have in mind the profile of those who come on small boats. For context, I remind the Committee that—
Perhaps I can take the noble Lord’s question in just a moment. For context, I remind the Committee that the majority of unaccompanied children who claimed asylum in the UK in 2022 were aged 16 or 17. Where there is a dispute about age, half are found to be adults.
Clearly, this Bill affects every person who falls within the four categories described in Clause 2, and that is all people who enter by any illegal method. Of course, at the moment, as we know, the majority of such entry is effected by small boats.
For any unaccompanied child who is removed while under 18, we will ensure that adequate reception arrangements are in place where the child is to be removed to. It is not simply a case of putting them on a plane back whence they came.
I would be grateful for the Minister to respond to my point. I read from the factsheet, as he has just done. Where in the Bill is that made that a requirement?
As I have already made clear, the answer is that the department has stated in both Houses that this is our position. The adequacy of reception arrangements is not something you would expect to see in the Bill, and it is consistent with the present regime that is operated in relation to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
Forgive me. I must make progress. Doubtless, the noble Lord will have an opportunity at the end of my remarks.
Taking these measures will send a clear message that children cannot be exploited and cross the channel in small boats for the purpose of starting a new life in the UK. The clause provides the circumstances in which it may be appropriate to remove an unaccompanied child. However, the Government consider it necessary to be alert to the people smugglers changing their tactics to circumvent the Bill. As such, it is appropriate to have a power to extend the circumstances in which it would be possible to remove an unaccompanied child via regulations. This is very much a reserve power. We have to be mindful of changes in the modus operandi of the people smugglers. I cannot give the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, examples now of how the power might be exercised but I can assure her that such regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure and therefore will need to be debated and approved by each House.
Clause 3 also sets out the power to make provisions for other exceptions to the duty to remove via regulations. This provision is important for providing the flexibility to make additional exceptions to the duty should we not want the measures in the Bill to apply to certain categories of persons. I will give one possible example of this: a person who is subject to the duty to make arrangements for removal may also be the subject for extradition proceedings and it would be appropriate for an extradition request, if approved, to take precedence over the duty to remove in Clause 2.
Amendments 14, 15 and 17 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, seek either to exclude unaccompanied children altogether from the duty to remove or only permit the removal if it was in their best interests, even when they reach 18. Amendment 22 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, covers similar ground. It seeks to provide for asylum and human rights claims from unaccompanied children to continue to be admissible within the UK.
All these amendments would undermine the intent of the Bill. As I have indicated, if we fill it with exceptions and carve-outs it will not achieve its aims and will serve to put more children at risk as the people smugglers would seek to fill the boats with even more young people, putting further lives at risk and splitting up families. I can confirm that since January 2018 around one-sixth of arrivals on small boats have been children aged 17 and under. We do not want an increase in this proportion or in the absolute numbers. Our asylum system is under increasing pressure from illegal migration, and the Government must take action to undercut the routes that smuggling gangs exploit by facilitating children’s dangerous and illegal entry into the United Kingdom, including via dangerous routes such as small boats.
Stopping the boats is in the best interests of small children who might otherwise make these dangerous and unnecessary journeys. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who raised the issue of a lack of safe and legal routes, I remind the Committee that the safest course for children and adults alike is to seek sanctuary in the first safe country they reach. These amendments would undermine the central premise of the Bill that if one comes to the UK via an illegal route, one will be removed and not permitted to remain in the UK and build a life here. The amendments will increase the incentive for adults to claim to be a child and encourage people smugglers to pivot and focus on bringing over more unaccompanied children via dangerous journeys. The effect would be to put more young lives at risk and split up more families. It is, I say again, in the best interests of children to enact these provisions and stop the boats. It is these amendments that will encourage the people smugglers, not the provisions in the Bill.
The noble Lords, Lord German, Lord Purvis and Lord Coaker, pressed me to set out the evidence underlying the purpose of the Bill. It is the Government’s view that if a person arriving illegally in the UK is faced with the prospect of being detained on arrival and swiftly returned to their home country, or removed to a safe third country, they will not pay the people smugglers thousands of pounds to provide them with passage across the channel.
We recognise the particular vulnerabilities in relation to unaccompanied children. That is why the Bill provides that the duty to make arrangements for removal does not apply until they reach adulthood. However, as I have explained, the Bill confers a power to remove unaccompanied children. This is not new but reflects current policy. This will be exercised, as I have said, in very limited circumstances, taking into consideration the best interests of the child. Following amendments brought by the Government at Report in the Commons, this clause now expressly sets out the circumstances in which the power to remove unaccompanied children may be exercised.
Turning to Amendment 16A, I first comment that the noble and learned Baroness set out what is likely to be an exceptional scenario. That said, she has a point in that an unaccompanied child who is subsequently adopted in the UK by a British citizen has an automatic route to British citizenship. They would therefore not be subject to the citizenship bans in Clauses 30 to 36. In this scenario, we agree that it would not be appropriate for the duty to remove to be applied to that child. We can address this by using the regulation-making power in Clause 3(7) to provide for exceptions to the duty to remove. An amendment to the Bill is, therefore, not required. In addition to adopted unaccompanied children, such regulations would also cover any other cohorts to whom the duty would apply but who exceptionally obtain British citizenship following their arrival in the UK. I hope that the noble and learned Baroness and my noble friend Lord Cormack will be reassured by this.
Amendment 18 from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is on one level unnecessary in that the regulation-making power in Clause 3(7) could be used to deliver the desired outcome. However, I come back to the aim of the Bill: namely, promptly to remove from the UK those who meet the conditions in Clause 2. We have brought forward a robust legal scheme that will enable us to do just that and I urge your Lordships not to add caveats, exceptions and exemptions to the Bill such as to make the scheme unworkable.
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I should add that I very much value the continued dialogue we are having with the Children’s Commissioner for England. She recently met the Immigration Minister and me, and I am due to meet her again soon to discuss the Bill.
My Lords, that point was specifically about the alignment of the Children Act with this legislation. Clauses 17 and 20, which deal with standards of accommodation, were raised by several noble Lords. Is the Minister intending to say something about that before he moves on?
Clearly there are other provisions in relation to the standards of detention in the detained estate in relation to children. In the event that they are not detained, the usual prevailing regulations will apply and I am happy to write to the noble Lord with more detail in relation to that.
The noble Lord, Lord German, referred to the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee in relation to the regulation-making power in Clause 3(7). We are studying that committee’s report carefully and aim to respond before Report.
In conclusion, Clause 3 adopts an appropriate balance in respect of unaccompanied children and, in those circumstances, I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to withdraw her amendment.
The Committee noted the Minister confirming that there would be no duty on Ministers to ensure that adequate reception arrangements are in place for an unaccompanied minor to be received. That is tragic. Can he also answer my question with regard to the fact that the only place at the moment with which the Government have an MOU is Rwanda? Are there any facilities for children in Rwanda that the Government have agreed-?
As I say, the occasions when a child will be removed will be very exceptional and the two cases that are envisaged are for family reunion, therefore reception facilities will not be required, or if it was a return to a safe country, and that of course would not arise unless it was a Rwandan child. In those circumstances, I do not see the particular purpose of the noble Lord’s question.
The other category does apply. If it cannot be to the safe country of origin, it applies to the schedule countries. The only scheme that we have at the moment, if it is not a safe country, would be Rwanda, so it is a simple question: are there any facilities for children in Kigali which the Government have agreed?
As I said, the power will be exercised very exceptionally. I am happy to go away and look into that point, and I will write to the noble Lord on it.
I asked a number of questions around the child rights impact assessment. Please do not say that we will get it in due course, because I quoted from the UN committee’s guidance on impact assessments and it was very clear that it should be shaping the policy process from the word go—so it must exist. Why do we not have it? It is good that the Children’s Commissioner is now being involved in discussions, but she complained that she was not consulted prior to the publication of the Bill. Given the impact on children, surely that is grave discourtesy to the Children’s Commissioner.
From my experience, the Children’s Commissioner was involved, certainly while the Bill was passing through the other place, but I will look further into that point on timings. However, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that it is very important that she is engaged with in full in relation to the development of this legislation in so far as my personal view goes. In relation to the point about the child impact assessment, I am afraid that, however much it will disappoint the noble Baroness, I must revert to the usual answer and say that it will be provided in due course—but I of course take away the sentiment that she has evinced.
In relation to the situation when the child becomes 18, have the Government taken into account the impact on younger children who may have spent many years in this country and are then basically deported?
The noble and learned Baroness is quite right that it is a very difficult balance that we have to draw. The difficulty is that we cannot allow there to be a loophole which incentivises people smugglers to put young children into boats and expose them to greater danger. There is clearly a balancing act to be performed. There are powers in the Bill, as the noble and learned Baroness will have seen, in relation to exceptional circumstances. However, the principle is that a minor will be removed at the date of their majority. I should add, in relation to a point that was raised in the speeches, that of course children become adults at 18, and that is recognised in international instruments. I appreciate that children develop at different rates, but that is the legal position, as I am sure the noble and learned Baroness will agree.
Further to the point made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, can I ask the Minister to look at this? I raised it in my remarks as well. My noble friend Lady Lister raised the case of an eight year-old. There is a problem here. I appreciate the point the Minister made, but there is a very real problem, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, mentioned. If you have a child who is 10 or 11, they will be here for eight years and will then be deported at 18. Can the Minister at least go away, have a look at this and discuss with his officials whether there is a way of being consistent with the Bill, as the Minister would have it, but also reflect on that as particular point that causes problems?
I assure the noble Lord that these points have received bags of consideration, not least from me, because they are very difficult. Of course, the length of time a child is present is a material factor. I am glad to say, as I said in my earlier remarks, that the vast bulk of children who are found in the small boats are not in the eight to 10 age bracket but are more likely to be 16 or 17. I can hear the noble Lord saying sotto voce that I have not answered the question. The answer is yes, of course I will carry on thinking about it, but it is a difficult question. In the Government’s view, we have come to the only logical solution that does not provide a very large hole in the scheme of the Act.
The Minister made reference to the balance that the Government believe there is in the Bill around unaccompanied minors and encouraging smugglers. There have been a lot of speeches in this group about the rights of the child. Article 2 says they apply to every child; Article 4 says that Governments must do all they can to make sure that every child can enjoy their rights; and Article 22 on refugee children says Governments must provide them with appropriate protection and assistance to help them enjoy all the rights of the convention. How is that balancing the rights of the child? I wonder whether the Minister could write to compare and explain—otherwise, I can see that the UK will have to withdraw itself from the rights of the child.
I do not need to write to answer that. The answer is that there is nothing incompatible with the UNCRC, because obviously a child who is here is having all their rights as a child respected, and if they are exceptionally removed under the circumstances described in the Bill it will be in a manner that is compliant with the UNCRC, particularly if it is for family reunion or for return to a safe country, which is presumably also a signatory to the UNCRC and will afford them their own rights.
With the greatest respect to the Minister, we have not yet seen the detail. That is the problem. The Minister has outlined two or three areas and said there will be others. It is not clear to this Committee exactly what those details are. I will repeat the earlier request: will he please write and set them all out?
The Minister made a slightly unconvincing effort to persuade us that what is envisaged is in the best interests of the child. It rested on a couple of planks. One was that the safest route for the child will be to stop in the first safe country they come to. Hundreds of thousands of them do. If you go to look at the camps in Turkey, Greece or the Lebanon, you see that there are hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied children who have fled from conflict zones and are there. I am not sure that it is in their best interests to be there. There is a minuscule number who come here, perhaps because they speak English and not Greek or Turkish, perhaps because they have family or connections here, or perhaps they have the possibility of a home here. I cannot see why it is in their best interests to go into the camps in the first safe country they come to you and not come to their connections, family or prospects in this country.
I know that the noble Lord and I do not agree, but the international law position is that children, and indeed asylum seekers, cannot be selective about where they wish to seek asylum. It is not an evaluative decision that an applicant can make. That is not the way the refugee convention works and, as we made clear at Second Reading, and as I think was widely accepted across the House, we sadly cannot take everyone who would want to come here—and that, I am afraid, is almost the logical corollary of what the noble Lord suggested.
My Lords, the Minister has chosen not to reply to various points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, and me about conformity with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. He has simply stated, “In our view it’s fine”. The committee set up at the United Nations to overview this has considered this legislation and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, has come to the view that it needs to be amended—a view that is rejected by the Minister. Presumably the UK was represented on that committee. Can the Minister give the Committee an account of the British representative’s statement in reply to the criticisms that led to it adopting that opinion?
As the noble Lord knows, that is not something that I would have to hand in the course of the discussion of this amendment, but I will of course look into it.
I hope the Minister will forgive me, but a narrow but important point of principle was raised by both the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed; they spoke on different matters but on the same issue of principle. One case was about what would happen to a child who came to this country as an infant and was adopted; another, put by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, concerned a child who would not be returned to adequate reception arrangements. I believe that the Minister said to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that we can deal with that in regulations—so nothing to worry about there—and the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, was that the Government have no intention of removing children to a country which, even if it meets the other criteria in the clause, does not have adequate reception arrangements for an unaccompanied child.
The whole structure of this so-called robust legislation is about creating tightly crafted duties to tie the hands of the Secretary of State. We know what that game is: it is about ensuring that we have, in effect, ousted the court’s supervisory jurisdiction. Powers become “duties to remove” and then, because there is a little ounce of compassion in relation to children, they say they will flip the duty and so there will not be a duty but, in certain circumstances, a power to remove even unaccompanied children. Given that this is the approach of the scheme, why on earth cannot comfort be given in the Bill to both the noble and learned Baroness and the noble Lord on those two limited circumstances? Why can the Bill not say that a child who came as an infant and who has now been adopted by a British national cannot be removed? For a child who would otherwise be removable because they have an identity document—there is a thought—or sent to a country where they are a national but there are no reception arrangements, why can it not be a criteria that there should be adequate reception arrangements? Why cannot that be in a Bill that is so tightly and robustly drawn by the Home Office?
The noble Baroness is always a powerful advocate but, in this instance, these provisions are already clear. As I have said, and for the reasons that I have explained, there is no need, in those limited circumstances, for further exploration in the Bill. As I have said, these are things that we can explore, and doubtless will return to in other parts of the Bill, but for the moment I am afraid there is no need for further additions in relation to those areas.
In 28 years of service in this House and the other place, I have never had more difficulty in getting an answer to a question.
The Minister has responded several times, and I spoke about it earlier this afternoon. He confirms that local authorities alone have the statutory power to look after these unaccompanied migrant children. He confirms in a Written Answer that the Home Office does not have corporate parent responsibility. So can he tell us which Act of Parliament the Home Office is using to detain these children and put them into these hotels, or—I always say never assume but I am going to break my rule—are we to assume that the Government know they are acting unlawfully?
I must apologise to the noble Lord for not addressing that point in my remarks; I did mean to do so. It is a topic that the House has canvassed in Oral Questions on a number of occasions, particularly, as I seem to remember, in the winter of last year.
The present position will change when this Bill passes. As the noble Lord will have seen, there are provisions in the Bill relating to the transfer of responsibility for children, which set out the responsibility in the context of unaccompanied children. If the noble Lord looks, for example, at Clause 16, he will see that it concerns
“The power to transfer children from Secretary of State to local authority and vice versa”.
The present position arose as a result of the way in which the emergency in the channel has come about. As I said in my Answer, which was very fairly read out by the noble Lord, the clear position is that the responsibility should be for the local authorities, save for the circumstances described in Clauses 15 to 20.
In trying to answer my question, the Minister just reiterated what it says in the equality impact assessment. It was an important question. If the central tenet of the Bill is that children—accompanied or unaccompanied—not being given any dispensation will act as a deterrent, where is the evidence for that? In answering, the Minister said that this was the view of the department. Well it is the view of some children that the tooth fairy exists but, looking at the empirical evidence, it is quite clear that this may not be so. My question is clear: on what empirical evidence is the view of the department built, and when will this House get to see that evidence?
It is a fairly standard rhetorical tool to ask where the evidence is but in this kind of field we have to operate looking forwards as to what might happen as a consequence of legislation, applying our own experience, and particularly that of the department in administering the UK border. It is the department, I would suggest, that is in a position to come to a view on these matters. It is not simply a case of some unqualified person reaching that assessment. The net effect is that it is the opinion of the department—
It is the opinion of the department that a person would not pay a people smuggler to cross the channel if they were going to be detained and removed. It stands to reason, whatever the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, might shout from a sedentary position.
So the Minister agrees that this is not just about small boats; this is about the whole refugee and immigration system. Where is the evidence that the provisions in this Bill will meet the central issue that the Government wish to address and act as a deterrent to children, whether accompanied or unaccompanied. Where is the evidence?
Obviously, as these provisions are not in force, there is no evidence of the impact of these measures. The noble Lord appears to require me to look into a crystal ball. We can make reasonable conjectures about the effect of these measures, and that is what we have done.
This has been an extraordinary debate; I have never known there to be a debate following a request of the person to withdraw their amendment. The speeches from right across the Committee have been extraordinarily and unbelievably powerful because of course this is such an emotive subject. This Government want to detain and lock up children—accompanied, not unaccompanied, in the middle of an adoption or whatever else—in the most appalling accommodation. We know that, because this Government want to copy the model of the Greek islands, where the national view is that that accommodation is unacceptable and inhumane. We know that. That is what the Home Secretary wants to do. It is not surprising that people feel rather strongly against that proposal. That is just part of the proposition. The other is that, once children grow up, whether they are unaccompanied, adopted, leading normal lives over here or whatever else, they should be removed from this country, and of course regulations may determine the circumstances in which they may be required to be removed.
This is an appalling Bill, if I may say so. In a way, the application of the Bill to children just sums up the depth of the inhumanity of this Bill. I like to think that our Minister perhaps does have humanity and that he does respect our international obligations, and our 1989 Act and the rest of it—but he is acting and speaking on behalf of the Home Secretary, and I do seriously question whether she has the humanity that we all want her to have.
It was very important that we not only heard incredibly powerful speeches from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and Cross-Benchers, but also that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made a point on which I think we all agree: this Bill does not reflect what we on any Bench expect from the Conservative Party. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. That is why there is such an incredible unanimity of view that these clauses—Clause 3, Clause 4 and the rest of them—should not stand part of this Bill.
All I can do here is, for today, withdraw Amendment 14 on the basis that without a doubt these matters will return on Report.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
Amendment 15 not moved.