Family Migration (Justice and Home Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 4:26 pm on 20 September 2023.

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Baroness Hamwee:

Moved by Baroness Hamwee

That this House takes note of the Report from the Justice and Home Affairs Committee All families matter: An inquiry into family migration (1st Report, HL Paper 144).

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, I am sorry to have driven so many Members away. I should declare my interests: I have introduced Bills on family reunion; I chaired an APPG inquiry that reported in 2013 on the then new rules; and I am a trustee of a charity that assists asylum seekers into university education.

We had a choice of quotes to introduce this report, many of them from senior politicians stressing that family is the bedrock of society. We chose this article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

We found that many families are not protected. This begs the question, what is “family” in the 2020s? We were clear that it is more than the traditional nuclear family of two adults plus two children. Blended families, for instance, may include children from previous relationships. In many cultures, the concept of “family” is very wide, with corresponding responsibilities to family members. The world has shrunk in terms of accessibility and experience, and relationships reflect that.

The principle of the importance of family has fallen foul of current political narratives. The Home Office takes the view that it is a matter of choice if a family cannot be together because of the rules or, as it puts it, whether a family decide to separate. In 2013, I heard a British citizen be told on a radio call-in to go and live in his wife’s country. As he said, “There’s not much call for mortgage broking in Nigeria”.

There is no consistent definition of “family” or “relative” across the immigration pathways. The Government have created bespoke pathways in response to different situations rather than applying one set of principles. Naturally, this causes confusion and resentment. Where there is an apparently family-friendly policy, it is often undermined or negatived by practice and by practical realities, especially the costs—in particular, fees and the health surcharge, which are now rising to considerably more than when they were mentioned in our evidence, as they were frequently.

Of course, the rules barely touch the sides in terms of parliamentary scrutiny. Ministers respond to criticisms of their being too restrictive by saying that, where there are compelling and compassionate factors, we can exercise discretion to grant leave outside the rules. That means uncertainty and unfairness; it also infringes on one of Lord Bingham’s tenets of the rule of law. It is hard not to regard the evidence that the committee received as compelling and requiring a compassionate response.

That is certainly the case where children are concerned. The “best interests of the child” are not just a matter of compassion; they are part of our law. A child’s interests are not paramount, but no other consideration can be treated as inherently more significant. I suggest that the Home Office forgets this last bit; they are not systematically integrated into immigration law. Family law and the family courts deal with these things much better, as they do in recognising the range of people—step-parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts—who are important to a child.

The Islington Law Centre told us:

“We have observed the incredible transformation that young people go through after being reunited with family”.

They

“experience a dramatic upturn in their mental health” and

“are finally able to focus on their future”.

According to other evidence from professionals on the impact of separation from parents on children, adolescents and young people who have experienced human rights abuses, they are

“vulnerable to symptoms of complex post traumatic stress disorder and developmental difficulties in addition to centrally difficulties in the process of mourning, separation and loss”.

In theory, adult relatives have a pathway to join family in the UK if they need support, but the eligibility requirements are almost impossibly strict. No wonder they are regarded not as a pathway but as a ban. To fulfil them, it is unlikely you would be fit to travel. Responsibility and love do not feature.

One witness and her husband worked in the NHS:

“Yes I can arrange carers, help at home in India, but ask any elderly who would they like to spend time with—the love and care from one’s own children cannot be replaced with even the finest carers”.

Another witness said:

“Do I continue to let my mother get increasingly frail and isolated … with her only family half a world away? But the only alternative is to uproot my family, depriving my son of his links with cousins and maternal grandparents, forcing my wife not to see her aging parents and to abandon her successful career here (not to mention my own)”.

A requirement for an adult dependent relative visa is that the sponsor in the UK must undertake to provide for the applicant’s maintenance, accommodation and care for five years, and confirm that the applicant will not have recourse to public funds. The catch is that if they can do that, they can afford to pay for “care” abroad, which in many places must go in quotation marks because of poor standards and even abuse. Given the undertaking, why are the Government so unyielding on the cost to the state?

This is one of the rules which keeps families out of the UK and loses us valuable members of society, when middle-aged people decide they must leave to care for parents. Notably, it is why non-British citizens working in healthcare are lost to it. As of last November, non-British citizens made up 16.5% of the NHS workforce and 37% of hospital doctors. Can we afford to lose them? We deter the very people we need as part of our labour force and who would contribute to our society. I am sure others will mention postgraduate students.

The impact of the minimum income requirement for spouses and partners is considerable, and that cohort will increase because EU and EEA citizens who are not settled now fall within the rules. Let us not forget pensioners living abroad with a foreign partner who want to return. I have heard shock, distress, anger and outrage: “Is this how my country treats me?”

Women who would sponsor a partner may be at a particular disadvantage because women tend to earn less. Non-British partners who are high earners outside the UK do not have their earnings taken into account.

A partner may be faced with remaining abroad with a child or leaving the child. In 2015 the Children’s Commissioner estimated that up to 15,000 children were separated from a parent by the income requirement. We heard of a child whose mental health was so affected that she was hospitalised. She recovered when her father was able to join her and her mother in the UK after two years.

We heard a lot about

“overly strict, inflexible and very onerous” evidential requirements for resources to count. The MIR was introduced to promote social cohesion and protect public finances. It fails—a view that the Migration Advisory Committee has recently indicated it shares.

I remember a gentleman who was living in a low-wage area with a disabled daughter who needed a lot of care, so his ability to work was restricted. He remarried to a teacher who could have shared that care and contributed to the household income. He did not reach the MIR, so they made do with her visiting. She was then refused entry because the immigration officer did not believe she would leave. She was sent to Harmondsworth, where she collapsed. There is a culture of disbelief. We recommend a rebuttable presumption in favour of applications to visit close family and the reintroduction of a right of appeal.

Let it not be said, although the Government say it, that contact online is an adequate substitute. How can it be if a child thinks that daddy has no legs because they are not visible on the screen? We heard that:

“Staying in touch online has been a crutch, a necessary evil that we hold onto, like onto a straw while drowning. It certainly does not allow actual relationship to develop and bloom”.

Child refugees cannot sponsor family members to join them. The UK is one of two outliers in Europe on this. We reject the notion of a pull factor and accept evidence of the huge detrimental impact on children who are refugees. Children need their parents and their siblings, at least. Siblings are very important. We heard distressing evidence, and the obvious point that a child’s family will normally still be in the persecuting state; the child will spend most of their time worrying about their family’s safety.

We did not call for comments on Home Office procedures, but we got a great many: about the “punitive” costs, described as some of the highest in the world, which mean some having to choose whose visas in the family can be renewed, or falling off the route to settlement because the fees are unaffordable. We heard how poor the Home Office is at communicating. It is nowhere near proactive. It fails to meet its own standards. The descriptions sounded like the worst of call centres; if you email, you get a standard reply, no matter the question. Ask any MP and you hear the same frustrations about failures to respond. The Home Office is its own worst enemy. It could reduce the burden with less frequent requirements for renewal—and I will not start on backlogs.

Even with more time than most speakers have this afternoon, this is inevitably a quick canter around some of our committee’s 61 conclusions and recommendations. We were united in our disappointment at the Government’s uniform—and, frankly, cloth-eared—rejection. I hope the Minister can be less defensive.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee 4:38, 20 September 2023

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as a practising solicitor and those declared in the register. Although I am no longer a member of the Select Committee, I am none the less delighted and proud to follow the noble Baroness and to be associated with a notably unanimous report on so contentious a subject. It is now more than 50 years since I incurred the wrath of many in my own party and beyond by publicly opposing Enoch Powell at our party conference and welcoming the brave and controversial decision of the then Heath Government to offer a safe haven to those Ugandan Asians who had shown admirable foresight by retaining their UK passports at the time of independence.

Growing up in Toxteth, in Liverpool 8, I had early experience of a multiracial, multicultural society and have no hang-ups about it at all. Indeed, I welcome and celebrate it. We should be proud of our position as a global leader in diversity. That is not, however, to deny that any sovereign state, in particular an island nation such as ours, has both a right and a responsibility, principally but not exclusively to its own citizens, to police its borders and control immigration. Of course we do, but we have to exercise that right, power and responsibility with clarity, fairness and empathy.

In too much of our political discourse, any display of empathy is now considered to be a sign of weakness. In our response to the illegal occupation of Ukraine by the criminal regime in Russia, we have shown not just characteristic robustness but empathy for the many victims of the ghastly, unnecessary suffering taking place as a direct consequence of Putin’s aggression. Why, then, is so little empathy shown as we consider the plight of other migrants, so many of whom are also fleeing from the most appalling situations?

In this report, specifically in paragraph 40, the committee suggested that

“the Government should revisit existing ‘mainstream’ immigration pathways” rather than continuing to create a plethora of “bespoke” pathways. Surely that would represent a practical recognition of the sad fact that geopolitical crises are no contemporary aberration. They are now a fact of life and, with the combined effects of political instability and climate change, they are not going to vanish from the scene any time soon.

In paragraph 59, the committee asked why

“the Government has not systematically integrated” children

“into its policy and practice”.

That sentiment should not be controversial. In fact, Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 makes it clear that

“the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”.

If that is the case in family law, why not in immigration law? We can pride ourselves that we are a generous country, or we are nothing.

In response to the Home Office deciding that images of Mickey Mouse were too welcoming for migrant children, a band of cartoonists and writers, including Nick Newman and Tony Husband, are creating a welcome to Britain colouring book about life and culture in Britain to raise the spirits of those children. I congratulate them on their timely and heartwarming initiative.

I will conclude by quoting from the only surviving manuscript believed to be in William Shakespeare’s own hand. There is a speech delivered to a rampaging crowd by Thomas More, the sheriff of London. More asks the rioters to imagine themselves in the shoes of the immigrants they are attacking:

“Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,

Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation

… would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth”.

At the very least, should we too not occasionally imagine ourselves in the shoes—if they have any—of the desperate souls who want only to find a safe haven, contribute to our way of life and protect their children from danger?

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour 4:43, 20 September 2023

My Lords, it is a genuine pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I should remind the House that he was never known as a Tory wet. The speech he has made this afternoon indicates that in this House, and across parties, we still retain an understanding of the critical importance of our humanity and how we should treat each other internationally as well as locally. I thank him for his speech.

I reinforce the point that the noble Lord made about the unanimity of the committee, on which I have been pleased to serve and will do so for another three months. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on her chairmanship and the resilience that she has shown in being here this afternoon, because I know how ill she has been. I thank her for her words.

I shall reinforce two or three of the points that have been touched on. It is extremely worrying that our Select Committee system, in this House and the other place, is not treated with the respect that would be helpful to the Government and to the health of our democracy in the way that all of us would wish. It is highly unusual for a Government to simply ignore or dismiss all recommendations put forward by a Select Committee. The terms “brush-off” and “cloth-eared”, used by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, are polite when it comes to what can only be described, sincerely, as contempt from the Home Office for anyone, any organisation or any Select Committee that has the temerity even to raise minor criticisms of how it operates.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to the simplification and alignment of different pathways and processes. The rules are applied at the moment in all kinds of contradictory ways that make it difficult for the staff of the Home Office to operate appropriately, not just administratively but in terms of their understanding of the impacts on individuals, and the humanity that goes with that. We also had clear evidence that in local government there was deep confusion about the role that it had to play. That meant that it had to develop an expertise that was not readily available. Although some local authorities shared that expertise, there was little if any understanding by the Home Office about what happens on the ground, at the coalface, for those who face continuing separation and have to deal with the consequences.

We dealt with an issue that has not been touched today: the question of the burden on the “public purse”. It is often said, and often believed, that family reunion will somehow add substantially to the costs for the Government, but we have had clear evidence that, far from doing that, the reunion of families can help directly. If an incoming partner, spouse or other close family member is able to get a job, they can contribute directly and lift other members of the family out of reliance on the public purse. They can also contribute to childcare, which is increasingly expensive. The Government themselves indicated that in their forward programme, in the last Spring Budget by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in terms of the expenditure that we have already in this country.

We all say that we believe in families—all families—and that all families matter. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, that seems to stop when it comes to the genuine uniting of families from across the world. Of course we need rigorous rules and of course they must be enforced both fairly and, often, in a way that can obtain public support and respect for the system, but at the moment that is not the case because of the way in which the rules are drawn up and applied. There is confusion relating to why there should be different rules from those of bespoke pathways. Why were the Government not prepared even to countenance taking a look at how the recommendations might cut costs both at the Home Office and in local government? That might improve the processing system itself, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, we do not have time to deal with today. That could all be run more smoothly while still adhering to the Government’s overall principles in relation to migration.

The report needs to be taken seriously. I hope that at some future juncture it will be possible to pull Government Ministers back to a future Justice and Home Affairs Committee or the Liaison Committee to try to get them to seriously address what was in the report rather than what they thought of in the first place.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:50, 20 September 2023

My Lords, I want to focus on a particular aspect of family migration: the recruitment of researchers and technicians from overseas, under the global talent and skilled worker visa programmes. I emphasise “recruitment”. Unlike the determination to block immigrants as such, at least part of our current Government positively want to attract large numbers of such talented scientists, technicians and engineers.

The noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, told the House last week, in reiterating the Government’s optimistic claim that they will make the UK a science superpower by 2030—that is to say, in seven years’ time—that

“bringing in overseas talent via the visa system” is vital to that aim. He added that the number of researchers in key science subjects

“will have to increase by around 380,000, and overseas talent will be a very big piece of that”.—[Official Report, 13/9/23; col. 1008.]

That is what DSIT thinks, as perhaps do the Department for Business and Trade and DfE. The Home Office is pushing hard in the opposite direction.

The visa system is designed to keep families out. It will discourage any applicant with a family from coming. Visa charges have been raised several times in the past 10 years. In addition, an immigration health surcharge was introduced in 2015, initially at a modest £200 a year. This autumn, the health charge will rise from £634 to £1,065 a year, with a discounted rate for children of £776 a year. That is an increase of roughly 400% since 2015. It is payable for an incoming scientist’s partner and children and payable up front, on arrival. Alongside this, the visa charge will be raised by a further 20%, also payable up front on arrival on behalf of the researcher and all their dependants. Someone who has been offered a post at a salary quite likely to be under £50,000 a year will be charged up to £25,000 a year at the point of entry.

The Government have abandoned all pretence that these payments are assessed on the basis of regaining direct costs. The rise in visa charges has been justified by the Home Office as helping to pay for the cost of police forces and border services. The increase in the health charge has been hailed in official government statements as contributing to the cost of offering doctors an increase in pay. These charges are far higher than those imposed by comparable countries with which we are competing for this sort of talent.

We are already in a situation in which graduate students who come to study in this country are pressed to leave their family behind: acceptable perhaps for a nine-month course but agonising for people with partners and children staying much longer. For post-doctoral researchers—precisely the people we want to attract—we are expecting some of the world’s most talented scientists to leave their families behind when they come here to support the UK’s scientific ambitions, or to mortgage their first year’s salary to pay these upfront costs.

Some in government have suggested that universities should pay these extra charges themselves if they really want to attract such talented people, or that grants for research should have to include funds to defray these additional costs—taxing universities and grant-giving foundations to avoid having to pay for public goods out of our own taxes. These people will be paying UK taxes from when they start to work here. In effect, they will be paying twice for health services and, if they want to renew their visa after five years, they will have again to pay a similar amount up front.

This represents a total contradiction in government policy: the Home Office doing all it can to keep talented people out while universities and research centres, with the Government’s active encouragement, are trying to bring them in. I first came across this mess when my son returned from 10 years working in the United States with an American wife. Some of his friends from Cambridge, working in some of the best American universities, decided to stay in the USA because of the way they thought the British Government would treat their American wives and children if they accepted posts back here.

I understand that the Home Office does not always pay much attention to other aspects of government policy. I know that there are many on the right of the Conservative Party who are hostile to universities as hotbeds of leftie intellectuals. They are happy to undermine their finances and unconcerned about universities’ scientific ambitions. But sensible Ministers, such as the noble Lord, Lord Murray, will want their Government to rediscover strategic planning and coherent policy. So I ask the Minister to take this back and tell his colleagues that these increased charges discourage British researchers from returning from abroad and foreign researchers from coming to work here. It is bad enough being nasty to the families of refugees; it is counterproductive to make talented people we want to attract to the country pay through the nose for the privilege of a family life while working here.

Photo of Lord Loomba Lord Loomba Crossbench 4:55, 20 September 2023

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for bringing this timely debate to the House. I also pay tribute to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, which the noble Lady chairs, for its thorough and detailed appraisal of this important aspect of migration policy.

In their response to the committee’s report, the Government seek to reassure us that, where applicants can show the required relationship with approved migrants, there is provision for them to be allowed to stay, that the Home Office will recognise where a parent has sole responsibility for a minor and that compassionate visas for extended family members can be granted outside the rules. But the committee’s evidence shows that eligible individuals find numerous obstacles in their way. It may not be the rules that are the issue, but their application. Many of the committee’s recommendations are aimed at achieving better outcomes respecting the rules we have.

The Government also state:

“Extending family reunion without careful thought would … place further pressure on Local Authorities”.

However, local authorities are unduly strained by the present arrangements. From an economic perspective, we know that the benefit of working migrants is overwhelmingly positive for the Exchequer and public services alike. I echo the committee’s view:

“The primary concern of family migration policies should be to allow families to live together. British citizens, permanent residents, and refugees should not normally have to choose between home, safety, and family”.

Our understanding of how families are constituted may be changing, but the significance of family as the cornerstone of our value system is undiminished and widely shared in this country. We have seen how these values drove this country’s response to the war in Ukraine. Through the Loomba Foundation, here I declare an interest; I was pleased to play a part in helping 1,000 Ukrainian mothers fleeing with their children to meet some of their basic needs through our partnership with Barnardo’s last year.

I have seen in many countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and south America, the devastating impact when the breadwinner is lost and the remaining parent is ostracised and cut off from wider family support. Many migrants inevitably find themselves in a similar position. Conversely, British citizens or permanent residents working in key professions choose to leave if they cannot bring their dependants.

In conclusion, my plea to the Government on both humanitarian and practical grounds is to see family not as a threat but as an important part of the solution to mitigate the impacts of migration and to support those for whom we are already responsible and who need it most.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 4:59, 20 September 2023

My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the register, both with the RAMP project and RESET. I am pleased to speak today following the helpful and insightful report from the Justice and Home Affairs Committee. The concept of family, which we all know is much more than just a societal description—it is a fundamental building block of our communal life as a nation—serves as an excellent basis for the review of migration policy. I refer the Minister to the Love Matters report from the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households, which I co-chaired, which has research on how family is now understood in our nation. I commend my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the committee for their important work.

I shall focus my comments today on family reunification, and particularly its impact on children. As recent debate has focused on channel crossings, this has become a neglected topic, but we must remember that family reunion can transform the lives of those who have already been granted protection as a refugee in the UK and support their integration as they start to rebuild their lives. It therefore remains a mystery to me that the UK, in contravention of legal obligations under both national and international law, still chooses to deprive an unaccompanied child of the right to be reunited with their parents. All EU countries allow separated children this right and, importantly, have not seen an increase in unaccompanied children travelling to Europe as a result. As the committee’s report highlights, there is no evidence that this creates a dangerous pull factor and I find the Government’s response, which is to say that there is a pull factor, a rather inadequate way of responding. So I would ask the Minister: what is stopping His Majesty’s Government, given that the cost of not doing so is the extension of a child’s trauma?

I was recently moved by the account of Wasim, an 11 year-old separated from his parents in the chaos at Kabul airport. He eloquently describes that living without his family is like “living in a desert”, and he says:

“I feel I have no place, I am all alone”.

When will Afghan children such as Wasim, who were evacuated under Operation Pitting and subsequently resettled under pathway 1 of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, be given options for reunion with his parents? If his parents are found to have died, why not use kinship care and reunion with appropriate kin?

Restrictive policies should be reformed, but there also needs to be a concerted effort to improve the effectiveness and accessibility of family reunion when a refugee’s circumstances are adequately covered by existing policy. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration recently commented that, since his 2019 inspection, the effectiveness of the family reunion route “has further deteriorated.” He goes on to say:

Family Reunion is one of the Home Office’s few safe and legal routes and it is failing those who seek to rely on it”.

Without urgent intervention, the route will become more inaccessible and, worryingly, this may lead to more family members taking the decision to travel irregularly to be reunited. No one should have to choose between safe travel and family. Can the Government confirm what steps they are taking to consider applications within the service standard timescale of 60 days, and how long current applications are taking to complete?

This autumn, the Government are due to consult on safe and legal routes, and I hope that discussion on family reunion will be included in the resulting report. Worryingly, family reunion numbers are at their lowest since 2015—fewer than 5,000 were granted in the year ending June 2023—even though it is one clear way to help reduce the need for people to travel irregularly. Two years on, Wasim has no safe way of being reunited with his parents and many children like him are either prevented from applying for their parents to join them in the UK or are waiting too long in unsafe situations before they can travel here.

As noble Lords would expect, in my role as a Bishop I often pray the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.

The Government have the power and opportunity to make changes that will reunite families and transform the lives of vulnerable children who are here in the UK and those needing sanctuary. I finish with Wasim’s words about his parents:

“If they could come here I would feel like God has given me a second chance”.

I implore the Government to give this second chance to children.

Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 5:05, 20 September 2023

My Lords, as I was sitting here innocently awaiting my turn to speak, a whisper in my ear said that I would follow the Bishop. It is the entire story of my life as a Methodist minister that I have always been obliged to follow a bishop. I am always glad to follow this particular one, who has persistently argued his case and put the Government in a place where he and we expect answers.

I use the few minutes at my disposal to take an opportunity that is rarely afforded me. I am part of the delegation that represents our Parliament at the Council of Europe. I sit on its migration committee, which commissioned me to write a report to assess the impact of 70 years of the convention on refugees and displaced people from 1951. I did so three years ago, and that report was subsequently endorsed by a full meeting of the parliamentary assembly in Rome in November 2021.

In the work that I did then, I noticed a certain theme that could be traced through all the ups and downs of the migration question in the intervening years. I start by quoting a sentence or two from the decisions of the conference of plenipotentiaries, which met after the ratification of the convention in which the words appear. The conference recommended that the “unity of … the family” should be

“maintained particularly in cases where the head of the family has fulfilled the necessary conditions for admission to a particular country”,

by extending the

“rights granted to a refugee” to cover all the members of their family and providing special protection for

“refugees who are minors, in particular unaccompanied children and girls”.

That is how it started. The convention itself is of course more ample even than that.

In the report that I wrote and submitted, the following proposal appears:

The Assembly … notes that recent Council of Europe action plans formulated in the migration sphere, which have focused on the protection of children and vulnerable persons, are set to conclude in 2025. For the period following that date, as part of a succession plan, the Council of Europe … should consider aligning itself with the UNHCR and its ‘Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways’. This strategy has set target figures for resettlement of one million refugees and two million others through complementary pathways such as family reunification or labour mobility schemes—targets to be achieved by 2028. A new pan-European action plan to support resettlement and enhance refugees’ self-reliance in the period from 2025 to 2028” would allow great benefit to the countries involved. That recommendation was made and accepted.

As a cry of despair, really, I ask the noble Lord the governor—I apologise, I cannot even imagine how I could make such a mistake. I ask the lovely noble Lord the Minister: to what extent, and in what detail, does the Home Office look at what comes out of Strasbourg and use the fact that some of us have been there for the deliberations to engage in discussions on the pithy points being made at the heart of these recommendations? This was unanimously accepted: a pan-European approach to the whole problem, with reunification of families at the very heart of that recommendation.

These arguments were presented and the council deliberated in the shadow of the first of those two wretched Acts—the Nationality and Borders Act and the Illegal Migration Act. They have robbed our country of its authoritative voice in speaking to these issues in the meetings of the assembly.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 5:10, 20 September 2023

My Lords, I wanted to speak in this debate because I strongly believe in the importance of the subject—hence my sponsorship of a Private Member’s Bill on refugee family reunion which has passed this House—and because this admirable report makes a very compelling case for a radical improvement in the rules and practice of the Home Office. I have agreed with all the excellent speeches made so far, including that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

Humanity and decency should be at the heart of rights-based family migration policies, but instead we seem to have callousness, even cruelty, combined with slow and cumbersome bureaucracy and inconsistent practices. The Refugee Council verdict is that:

“Many people with protection needs in the UK are struggling to reunite with even their closest family members. This is due to a combination of restrictive policies and operational failures”.

The committee’s report says that

“we … believe that the current rules do not adequately respect the right for families to be together”.

There is also a damning quote from Professor Audrey Macklin of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law:

“What strikes me about the UK system is that it seems to desire to prevent and deter families from living together”.

Amnesty International, the Refugee Council and Save the Children have concluded that the UK’s restrictive policy is in breach of its legal obligations under both national and international law.

If successful settlement, integration and making a full contribution are in the interests of society, as of course they are, then the actions of the Home Office make no sense at all. As the report says:

“We believe … that policies that respect family life also benefit society”.

There is a sheer—even grotesque—political contradiction. The report quotes the Prime Minister as saying that:

“Family runs right through our vision of a better future”,

and

“Strong, supportive families make for more stable communities”.

I could not agree more, but we want that implemented, because the failure to reunite families has severe consequences for the people who find themselves separated indefinitely from their loved ones. These consequences are particularly acute for children.

I welcome the Labour Party’s pledge to create a system for child refugees in the EU to once again have a facility to join family in the UK. However, we also need to allow refugee children to sponsor family members, which they are not currently eligible to do within the Immigration Rules, with applications “outside the rules” complex, lengthy and frequently unsuccessful.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham described, Afghans evacuated under Operation Pitting and subsequently resettled under pathway 1 of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme were granted indefinite leave to remain but without protection status. This means that they are not eligible for refugee family reunion. The Home Office has given them no prospect of that. Noble Lords can imagine the anguish of the 11 year-old child Wasim, referred to by the right reverend Prelate. He has been here since he was nine, while his parents are left in Afghanistan. What is the point of that distress to that whole family? The Home Office is both insensitive and inefficient. The report finds that:

“The Home Office is systematically deficient in its processing of family visa applications. Delays pile up, communication is appallingly poor, evidential requirements are excessively complex”— as my noble friend mentioned—

“and fees prohibitive. Applicants are left distraught”.

No wonder the report calls for Home Office processes to improve considerably and family migration rules to be simplified. The committee advises that:

“The process for bringing family members to the UK should be straightforward, affordable, transparent, and fair, with the rules applied as consistently as possible across different pathways”.

You would not think that was an awful lot to ask for. The committee wants the financial requirements for spouses and partners to be made more flexible, focusing on the likelihood of future income of the family unit rather than on one individual’s past income. It calls for reform of the route for adult dependent relatives so as to stop damaging family life and impoverishing society.

The Conservative Party likes to parade its belief in “family values”, but they are pretty much invisible in the field of immigration. Please can the Government put this admirable sentiment into effect in the Home Office? I hope the Minister can assure us of that.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 5:15, 20 September 2023

My Lords, the Justice and Home Affairs Committee report covers a lot of territory and has clearly highlighted many of the real problems with government policy. Its recommendations are, I would say, very sensible—clearly, the Government do not agree with them.

There is one thing that perhaps the Minister can answer now. The committee called for increased funding towards Home Office services to overcome delays and to reduce application fees. We know that the problems we have with the cost of hotel stays and the barges are all down to the Government because they chose not to set up a proper system for all the asylum seekers. I do not see why they could not have taken some advice from this report. The Government’s response is really not very good, which suggests that whoever responded did not read the report properly.

We know that the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers has been abysmal. They have created a backlog that they cannot clear up in the available time before they are thrown out of government, and the next Government will have to do it for them. It is quite shameful that they leave such a mess behind them for the next Government to sort out.

If we put aside all the things that we should feel towards people in such distress—our compassion, humanity, respect for the law and respect for the welfare of anyone in Britain—we could at least look at the financial and economic benefits of immigration. With an ageing population, we need other people. By inhibiting access to this country for people who need to be here to look after their children and so on, the Government are denying the British public all the skills, experience and competence of those who could come here, work and be a benefit to the tax system. They could be taxpayers, and therefore they can benefit us; I do not understand why the Government have such a block about this.

The Minister is clearly a stupendously intelligent person. I wonder whether he has read the report and, if he has, whether he might have a slightly different response from the Government’s, which is quite inadequate.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 5:18, 20 September 2023

My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity to make a small contribution to the debate. I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, both on initiating it and on the committee’s excellent report.

Some years ago I visited Calais, where I was introduced to five Afghan boys who were anxious to come to the UK. I was given their details and asked whether I could perhaps submit the details to the Home Office to speed up the process. I went there very quickly on my return to London, only to discover that they had all got here already; the Home Office had a record that they had arrived. They had arrived on the back of a lorry, not on boats, but they clearly had no faith in the system and managed to get here by what was still a dangerous route.

I will fast forward to the Dublin III discussions we had. At the time of the 2017 Act, this House passed a Motion, which the Commons accepted, that the Government, in negotiating with the EU on our departure, should maintain the Dublin III provisions as regards the right of a refugee child in one EU country to join family in another. It passed both Houses. Then came the 2019 Act and, to my absolute astonishment, the Government deleted the provision. Bluntly, I was angry. I am a very calm individual, but I was extremely angry. To mollify me, I was invited to a meeting here in the Palace with three Government Ministers and seven officials, one from the Treasury, all to try to browbeat me into accepting the decision.

I had a conversation with the then Immigration Minister, who looked me in the eye and assured me that it would be all right for children to come here, despite the Government having deleted the measure from the 2019 Act. He said, “Everything will be all right—don’t you trust me?”. My Lords, I lied. I said that I trusted him, although I did not trust the Government. He was wrong: nothing happened, and children stopped coming. Indeed, the Minister was then transferred to another job.

I welcome the report suggesting that these matters should be brought within the Immigration Rules. The Immigration Rules should be modified to allow for some security of access to this country for child refugees. I know we always talk about safe and legal routes, but they do matter if we are to deal with the traffickers because safe and legal routes are one of the alternatives to being trafficked. Surely, at least for children to join their families, we can have some safe and legal routes. We should always act in the best interests of the child.

I believe that the majority of the British public, if faced with the argument that we want to have the right of asylum seekers and refugees to family reunion more firmly entrenched in our system, would be on our side. By denying this, we are acting against compassionate public opinion.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:22, 20 September 2023

My Lords, the importance of a report such as this, and dare I say the importance of a House such as ours, is to highlight the complexity of issues, the understanding of which reveals what otherwise appears counterintuitive.

Political messages have to be headlines that grab people’s attention. The rule of political press offices tends to be that if you have to explain it, it is too complicated to be used as a campaign tool. In a first past the post democratic system, the space for consideration of complexity is limited. That is why we have committees such as this, comprising such eminent Members and supported by excellent officials, and committee chairs like my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who revels in detail. Her passion for the subject has been clearly demonstrated over many years.

The narrative so often advocated by those who are against immigration is the pressure that migrants place on the National Health Service, for example. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, this report provides clear evidence that skilled and experienced nurses and doctors who have come here from overseas are leaving the UK because they cannot provide the personal care that any concerned family member would want to give to their ageing parents and grandparents. They are not allowed to bring their increasingly dependent relatives to the UK, even though they have the means and ability to look after them, while they themselves are providing a vital service to UK society. Indeed, the rules make it almost impossible for dependent relatives to qualify for a visa. They must be practically bedridden but able to travel, for example. It is no surprise that the number of visas issued under the adult dependant route has diminished from 1,738 in 2011 to just one in 2020 and none in 2021.

As with so much relating to immigration, there are moral and practical issues, particularly in relation to children. My noble friend Lady Ludford quoted the Prime Minister, who has said

“strong, supportive families make for more stable communities”.

But, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, it is obvious to those who do not want to wilfully ignore it that the general cost to society of a child with no family to support them—including the detrimental psychological impact on the child and the child’s ability to reach his or her potential, and the cost to local authorities of providing a whole range of services for unaccompanied child refugees—is far greater than the costs associated with those who could be looked after by relatives or even adult siblings, were they allowed to join the child in the UK.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, the committee reached the same conclusion as the Lords EU Committee in 2016 that there is no evidence that the prospect of family reunification could encourage families to send children to the UK to act as an anchor for other family members—based not least on the fact that EU states that allow family reunification show no sign of it. The report highlights the fact that some couples, such as same-sex couples, are unable to cohabit in their country of origin because of local laws or social prejudice, yet the UK Immigration Rules set previous cohabitation as a condition before a partner visa can be issued. Rigid rules, inflexibly applied, are unlikely to cope with the complexities of the real world.

The report is careful in a number of places to indicate that uncontrolled immigration is not the answer, but all the circumstances surrounding the application for a visa and the likely impact on the individual, the public purse—both central and local—and society as a whole should be taken into account. The Government have spent a lot of time and energy trying to ensure, for example, that UK citizens who can work do work; yet when it comes to people from overseas working in the UK, they place an income limit that often prevents a second parent or adult sibling coming to the UK, leaving the migrant worker having to juggle work with childcare, when almost all migrants are working in shortage occupations. There is a crisis in immigration in the UK caused by the failure of this Government. A decade or more ago, there were many more asylum applications, far fewer awaiting a decision and far more removals, yet the Home Office makes the problem worse for itself by requiring multiple visa applications.

This excellent report emphasises that all families matter, but it might also have been entitled “An Encyclopaedia of Unintended Consequences”. Like so many other issues, family migration would be better served were it not for party politics—politics by headline—as opposed to the thorough and professional way that the committee has so comprehensively covered the issue.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords) 5:28, 20 September 2023

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Paddick; I agree with much of what he said. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on her report and other members of the committee, both those here and those unable to be present with us. It is an excellent report, and the noble Baroness highlighted much of what was important about it—she is to be congratulated on that.

In passing, and on a personal level, I also want to note the tremendously important comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt; I do not want it to pass without further recognition. I have read about his part as a Young Conservative in standing up to Enoch Powell. I do not think that any of us who have read about that period of history can fail to have been moved by the courage and determination that it took for somebody to stand up to Enoch Powell. He was backed at the time by a surge of populism, which not only the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, but many others—including the Heath Government, as he pointed out—had to stand up to. That should be an example to us all —not that today is like that—that sometimes you have to stand up for what is right and for what you believe, and that is what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, tried to do in her report. But do not mistake me: I am not comparing now with what Enoch Powell said then; none the less, I wanted to pay tribute to what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said and not allow it to pass.

I wanted to take just a few minutes to draw attention to something, because it infects the debate that we have on these matters. Page 5 of the committee’s report says:

The Home Secretary told us that ‘it is not feasible for all those people who might wish to come to the UK to do so’, adding that ‘we do not have an unlimited capacity to welcome every single person who is in a difficult situation in their home country’. We do not argue this but we do believe that the current rules do not adequately respect the right for families to be together”.

I say to the Government: if you set this up as being about those of us who are caricatured as supposedly demanding that everybody across the world who wants to come should be able to come here, that you have no rules and no borders with everyone piling in if they want to, how does that help the debate? Nobody is suggesting that; not a single person present in this debate believes that that is the way forward. However, what all of us are arguing for, what the report argues for, and what members of the committee and others here have said, is that it is important, within the rules that we have, that Parliament tries to act in a way which is consistent with the values that we want to have as a country. With respect to that, the debate is about family reunion, which somehow is not right as it stands—we have heard the story that the right reverend Prelate shared with us, and there are others.

I also want to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. The Government are quite entitled to say in response to a committee report, “We don’t agree with this or that”. However, it is unusual—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has more experience than me, as have others in this Chamber—for a Select Committee report to be virtually just dismissed without hardly any of it being recognised as having a point, which may be pulling the Government up to reflect that maybe they do not have it all right. When the Minister responds, I hope he does so in a way which reflects the way in which Members of the House have contributed to this debate, not from a negative point of view but to try to say, “Can we not do better with respect to family reunion than we are doing at the present time? Have the Government got it completely right?”

I do not suggest that everybody goes through the response as I did on a Sunday afternoon, but I have marked the places where the Government just dismiss the report, saying that it is not right, it has it wrong: “This isn’t right, this isn’t true, that’s not accurate, the data isn’t right”. The Government do not say, for example, which you would expect—many of your Lordships have experience of government—“We are reflecting on the point that has been made here because we too recognise that this is not working in the way that we would want it to”. That is how Parliament should work. Can the Minister also reflect on that when he responds to the debate?

I also wanted to highlight the inspector’s report, A Reinspection of Family Reunion Applications. It talks about all sorts of things—again, the right reverend Prelate mentioned this—but the independent inspector absolutely says that the situation has “deteriorated” since the 2019 report and that

“the Home Office’s performance in this area is ineffective”.

I must say—this is what I asked the Minister about in Questions—that it is unusual for the independent inspector’s term of office not to be renewed. We know that Home Office officials have criticised this inspector as being excessively critical and that his term of office is not to be renewed, and I wonder why that is. Maybe it is because he has pointed out that the Government should at the very least consider allowing children to reunite with family members more than it is being considered at the moment.

How can it operate at the moment, with a backlog which was 8,000 when the independent inspector published his report in February 2020 but which, according to the information I have, is now 11,000? What is the backlog of applications for family reunion? Whatever system you have, with whatever rules, it cannot work if there is not basic competency within it and if decisions cannot be made within a reasonable length of time. Can the Minister point out to us the current level of outstanding admissions, what is the average time that these decisions are taking to be made and whether any of the recommendations of the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—the noble Lords, Lord Hunt, and my noble friend Lord Blunkett sat on it—are to be accepted or whether any of them have caused the Government to think, “D’you know what? Maybe we should reflect on this and change something in the light of what is being said to us”?

The last point I want to make with respect to this is to say to the Government that, when we talk about family reunion or immigration generally, we cannot have a situation that operates on the basis of where I said the Government seem to be: saying that that this is an argument between those who wish to open the floodgates and those who wish to control the borders. If that is what the debate about immigration, asylum and refugees has come to, we will get nowhere. One of the things I think about the debate that has taken place in the House of Lords it that it has been a calm, rational and reasonable one that has said, “We have a real issue here on the aspect of family reunion”. People who deserve to be reunited, families which deserve to be put back together, are prevented from doing so by the current Immigration Rules and, frankly, the incompetence of how the system works at the current time. Is it really too much to ask the Government to reflect on that and see whether maybe some change would actually make a difference and bring about an immigration and asylum system with respect to family reunion that we could all be more proud of?

Photo of Lord Murray of Blidworth Lord Murray of Blidworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:37, 20 September 2023

My Lords, like many other noble Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for both securing this debate and chairing the committee. I am very grateful to all who have contributed to our discussion today, and I offer my thanks too to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee for its in-depth assessment of the family migration system and its considered recommendations for improvement.

I am sorry that noble Lords were not satisfied with the government response. I can confirm that the Government have read, taken on board and responded to these points, but of course I welcome the opportunity to hear the views of the House on this subject, which is one of wide interest.

I turn to the principal recommendations and will address them in turn. First, on the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on harmonising routes, I note that the Government recognise that there is a need to simplify and consolidate the family Immigration Rules, and we are committed to doing so in line with the recommendations of the Law Commission’s report of 2020. Our first tranche of updates was introduced in June 2022, alongside the simplified private life rules. However, of course reform needs to be done properly, and the Government believe that there are risks in attempting to harmonise the rules for the sake of doing so. Each route serves a specific customer and purpose and there is a correct balance to be struck to ensure that each route has the right conditions of entry and stay for family members.

Given the broad and diverse offer for family members across the immigration system, it would not be right fully to align all the requirements for the various family routes. There are clear differences in the needs of different groups and the purposes behind the rules. Therefore, it is right to harmonise the rules where we can, but in a sensible way, reserving the ability to vary requirements according to the nature and purpose of the route.

In addition, there is a balance to be struck between an individual’s right to a family and private life and the need for effective immigration control and public spending. Tailored requirements on family routes enable Parliament to determine appropriately where the balance lies for different cohorts.

On the noble Baroness’s comments in respect of the diversity of contemporary families, the report recommends taking a broader approach to the definition of family members—one that it says would reflect better the diversity of modern families. The right reverend Prelate raised this point. Contemporary families are diverse, and this diversity can affect how and where families might choose to live. We recognise that some elements of the family rules can be difficult to prove, and that, in modern family life, it is not unusual for parents to work, study or even live in different countries. However, it is important to recognise that the Government’s approach to family life is based on well-established guidance provided by the courts in their interpretation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I turn to my noble friend Lord Hunt’s very moving address and other noble Lords’ comments in respect of the best interests of the child. The Government are confident that mechanisms are in place to ensure that the best interests of children are fully considered at every stage of the immigration journey, in line with the statutory obligations imposed on the Secretary of State by Section 55 of the borders and citizenship Act 2009. Considering the best interests of the child is at the heart of what we do; it is a central tenet in our policy and operational decision-making. Decision-makers are routinely trained and have access to guidance that makes specific reference to Section 55. They also take into account a range of other relevant legislation in their decision-making.

In response to the noble Lord’s comments that the Government should revisit the existing mainstream immigration pathways rather than create bespoke ones, where possible we use existing pathways in response to events. However, there are some events so critical that we need to provide bespoke routes best to serve the issue at hand. One example was the Ukraine emergency. We are always learning from these in order to adjust our offer.

I turn to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in respect of adult dependent relatives. The Government disagree with the report’s findings that there is no pathway to the UK for adult dependent relatives, or ADRs. The current ADR route is designed to provide settlement in the UK for those most in need of care, but not for those who simply have a preference to come to live in the UK.

The ADR rules are carefully designed to prevent burdens on the taxpayer, to promote integration and to tackle abuse, and thereby to ensure that family migration to the UK is on a properly sustainable basis that is fair to migrants and the wider community by not being reliant on access to public services funded by UK taxpayers. When the policy was reformed in 2012, the Department of Health and Social Care estimated that a person living to the age of 85 costs the NHS on average around £150,000 in their lifetime, with more than 50% of this cost arising from the age of 65 onwards. These rules were upheld as lawful by the Court of Appeal in 2017.

The impact of medical professionals potentially leaving the NHS was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. This has previously been considered by the Home Office and was part of the review of the adult dependent relative rules, which were published in December 2016. That report considered the very point made by the noble Baroness: the suggestion about the number of NHS staff who support adult dependent relatives overseas is one that should be considered. The report concluded that that number is likely to be a very small proportion of the total population of professionally qualified clinical staff. Furthermore, there is no evidence to show that significant numbers of medical professionals have left or been deterred from applying to work in the UK since the revised adult dependent relative rules were implemented; indeed, record numbers of people are coming from abroad to work for the NHS. In summary, the Government believe that those who choose to come to the UK and ultimately settle here do so in the knowledge that they can be leaving behind family members in their country of origin. There should, therefore, be no expectation that family members will be able to join them in the United Kingdom.

I turn to the financial requirements, which were raised by a number of noble Lords. The Select Committee’s report invited the Government to take a fresh look at the financial requirements set out in the family rules. We will do so. The Government continue to keep the family Immigration Rules under review and make adjustments in the light of feedback on their operation and impact. However, the Government remain of the view that family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense and that family migrants must be able to integrate if they are to play a full part in British life. The purpose of the minimum income requirement, implemented in July 2012 along with other reforms of the family Immigration Rules, is to ensure that family migrants are supported at a reasonable level so that they do not become a burden on the taxpayer and can participate sufficiently in everyday life to facilitate their integration into British society. It has long been a requirement for a family migrant to demonstrate that they are able to support themselves without becoming a burden on the taxpayer, but the purpose of the minimum income requirement is to ensure that that requirement is consistently applied; that is right and fair.

I turn now to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in respect of fees. I am sure all noble Lords would agree that academia, science and research have an enormously beneficial and enriching effect on our society and way of life. I am proud of this Government for launching the global talent scheme to allow those aged over 18 who work in the fields of science, engineering, the humanities, medicine, digital technology or the arts and culture and can demonstrate exceptional talent or promise to apply for visas. Obviously, that topic is at some remove from the matters discussed in the report.

I turn to the noble Lord’s point about the immigration health surcharge. It ensures, I suggest, that migrants make a suitable contribution to the NHS during their stay. The surcharge is set at a level that broadly reflects the cost of providing NHS treatment to those who pay it. Payment of the surcharge enables migrants to access NHS care on broadly the same basis as United Kingdom nationals for the duration of their visa without them needing to worry about healthcare charges or private health insurance. Since its introduction in 2015, the surcharge has raised more than £3.4 billion in much-needed income, which goes to the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved Administrations for health spending.

As was noted by a number of noble Lords, on 15 September the Government laid regulations that will increase a range of fees across immigration and nationality routes, including those paid by people who want to settle in the UK. The new fees are to come into effect on 4 October. The increases reflect the fact that the majority of fees have not been subject to a significant increase since 2018, despite a context of high inflation and record high migration to the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, noted, fees for immigration and nationality applications play an essential part in the Home Office’s ability to operate a sustainable migration and borders system. It is the Government’s policy that those who use and benefit from the immigration system should contribute towards the cost of operating the system, reducing the burden on the taxpayer. The increases announced by the Government will mean that a greater share of that cost will be met by those users of the system. This will, in turn, allow more funding to be prioritised elsewhere in the Home Office.

I turn to the short remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on safe and legal routes. I am proud that since 2015, we have resettled over half a million people through such routes, and we agree that safe and legal routes are preferable to making life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean and the channel. That is why we are launching our consultation on safe and legal routes, as required by the Illegal Migration Act, a topic the noble Lord knows well.

Many noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, discussed the topic of family reunion. Between 2015 and June 2023, the United Kingdom issued more than 46,511 family reunion visas. More than half of those were issued to children—this is no small feat. The Government recognise that families can become separated because of the nature of conflict and persecution, and the speed and manner in which people are often forced to flee their country. Our refugee reunion policy allows individuals with protection status in the UK to sponsor their partner or children to stay here with them, provided they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country of origin to seek protection.

We believe that if children were allowed to sponsor parents, this would create a perverse incentive for more children to be encouraged—even forced—to leave their family and risk hazardous journeys to the UK. This would play into the hands of the criminal gangs who exploit vulnerable people and goes against our safeguarding responsibilities. Our policy is not designed to keep child refugees apart from their parents but, in considering any policy, we must think carefully about the wider impact to avoid putting more people unnecessarily in harm’s way.

In response to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who suggested that the policy was contrary to international or domestic law, a recent judgment of the High Court in the case of DN v Secretary of State for the Home Department ruled in favour of the Government’s policy on child sponsors. It was not found to be unlawful, so I do not accept his point.

Family reunion in the UK is generous, more so than in some of our European counterparts. Sponsors do not have to be settled in the UK, there is no fee, no time limit for making an application and there are no accommodation or minimum income requirements that applicants must meet. Our family reunion policy makes it clear that there is a discretion—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out—to grant visas outside of the Immigration Rules, which caters for extended family members where there are compelling compassionate factors. If children are not able to sponsor their parents or family members to join them under refugee family reunion routes, they may be eligible to be joined in the UK via family Immigration Rules. This is in Appendix FM to the Immigration Rules, which provides a route to enter the UK as the parent of a child who is in the UK. A condition of that is that the child must be under the age of 18, and either British or settled or in the UK with limited leave under Appendix EU. Parent applicants in the UK can seek permission to stay with a child who is under 18, either British or settled, or who has at least seven continuous years of residence in the UK, preceding the application, where it would be unreasonable to expect the child to leave.

In all applications from parents, where the applicant is unable to meet the suitability and eligibility requirements, Home Office decision-makers will consider any exceptional circumstances that would mean a refusal may have breached the right of the applicant or the affected family members to a family life in accordance with Article 8 of the ECHR.

To answer the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about unmarried partners who have the option of getting married or having a civil partnership if they have not cohabited, the department will have regard to that. I hope that provides some comfort.

I have already addressed the simplification of the Immigration Rules, which is being conducted. The work is under way, but I am afraid these matters are complicated and will take time. The Government can see the merit of what was said, so I do not accept the general thrust of the argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that we have rejected everything the committee has said.

I turn to the comments made about the burden of family migration policies on the public purse and the impact on local authorities. The final local government finance settlement for 2023-24 makes up to £59.7 billion available for local government in England, which is an increase in core spending power of up to £5.1 billion, or £9.4 billion in cash terms. The Home Office provides a range of services to support local authorities to understand and discharge their duties, in line with their legal obligations in respect of immigration, including the NRPF contract, local partnership managers and on-site immigration officials.

In closing, I repeat my earlier thanks to all who have contributed today and to the committee for its work in producing the report. Family migration is a complex topic and it is right that our approach balance the interests of those coming to this country with those of the British people. The Government remain committed to delivering improvements and reform across the board, including on family migration, as we strive to deliver a fairer, more effective and more sustainable immigration system.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

Given the time, can the Minister write to me on the specific question I asked about the Afghan scheme?

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

Can the Minister write to me with the current figures for applications outstanding and the average length of time spent waiting?

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

Can the Minister write to me about the questions I asked?

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 5:58, 20 September 2023

Are there any other bids? I am grateful to the speakers who have added their voices to that of the committee. I clearly cannot go through every point the Minister made, but I will say that my noble friend Lord Paddick’s point was not about couples who have not gone through a civil partnership but same-sex couples who cannot cohabit in their own country when a requirement for leave is that they should have cohabited.

I sincerely thank members of the committee for their work on the inquiry. The unanimity was notable; there were no fudges. I also thank our clerk David Shiels, our policy analyst Achille Versaevel, our committee assistant Amanda McGrath, our communications officer Aneela Mahmood, our specialist adviser Helena Wray of Exeter University and, of course, the 100-plus witnesses for their compelling and sometimes distressing evidence. They all helped us to stand in the shoes of the people who are affected by the rules—so far as any of us who are not so affected can.

I will have to see whether I can find any nuggets of cause for optimism in the Minister’s response. I commend to him the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt: empathy is not weakness. I well remember the occasion when the Secretary of State in oral evidence to the committee prayed in aid, “We can’t welcome everyone”. I was quite taken aback: I simply said, “No one is suggesting that”.

We clearly approached the issues from a completely different point of view from the Government and with completely different attitudes. I cannot help wondering about the reference to the rules being based on what the courts have ruled regarding Article 8. There is a series of successful appeals on the basis of Article 8 where the appellant has won against the Government. Immigration is a political issue; family should not be. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.