It is not my intention to speak at great length on these matters; I prefer to use this process to raise a number of points and to hear what the Minister has to say. These areas are controversial; there has been a lot of publicity about them, and she will know that the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the proposals related to the removal of benefits. However, this is not the time or place to rehearse the general arguments about that matter. If we are to make progress on those areas, I shall seek, through the amendments, to gain a greater understanding of how the removal of benefits would work.
The first point that I wish the Minister to clarify is who would be informed in the local authority, and who would have a duty to inform the local authority, when a decision was taken that benefit was to be removed. That is a critical point, on which I want reassurance. No one in the Committee would want a situation to arise in which the decision was taken to remove benefit, but none of the statutory authorities that should come in and give support was aware that the decision had been taken, and therefore the back-up systems to deal with the consequences of that hardship, including provision for any children, were delayed for several weeks.
The amendments make the point that we believe that the Bill should include a requirement on the Home Office to make contact with the local authorities to inform them that a decision has been taken on removal of benefit. We also believe that the Home Office has the responsibility for the consequences of its decision and should take a leading role in ensuring that back-up support is put in place. Although the Home Secretary gave me some assurances during the debate on the Queen's Speech, we believe that it is important to set out such requirements clearly in the Bill, with particular reference to the timing of the process. It is not acceptable to leave the onus for contacting the authority and getting the support on the individuals who have had their benefit removed. If the Home Office will not make that initial contact with social services, at the very least those who have had their benefits removed should, at the point at which they are informed of that decision, be told how to obtain support in clear and simple ways, and be given clear information about where they should go and the kind of support that they will receive.
Could the Minister also let me know what kind of discussions her Department has already had with local authorities to see how they plan to proceed on that issue? What kind of advice is the Department giving, and what feedback has she had from local authorities about some of the difficulties that they perceive in implementing the requirements that will be imposed by the Bill?
Could the Minister also explain to me under which section of the Children Act 1989 she envisages local authorities undertaking their responsibility for the children concerned? Will it be section 20 or section 31? I understand that there are different requirements, depending on which section is used. It would therefore be useful to hear from her which section of the 1989 Act she believes local authorities will have to use.
Finally, I hope that the Minister can give me some assurances about parents' access to children who have been taken into care as a consequence of hardship. We would all want some form of access for parents, so that there was not a very harsh regime. We understand that the Government are doing this as a deterrent, but there surely needs to be some ability for parents to have contact with children who have been taken into care.
I hope that the Minister will take me through the process from the point at which a decision is taken to remove benefits, explain how that will work with local authorities and what powers they will put in place, so that I can be reassured that something that I do not think should happen will be done in a way that avoids any further hardship.
I add a few comments to the points that the hon. Gentleman made about information to local authorities. I accept quite a lot of what he said about the need to ensure that, if we reach a point where benefits are withdrawn, when clearly some consideration has to be given to what happens to the children, the authorities who are responsible for taking that child into care or for making some other arrangement for the support of that child know what is happening.
Support from NASS, the National Asylum Support Service, could be withdrawn. There could also be cases where families are supported by a local authority social services department and the point is reached when it is told to withdraw that support. Clearly, in that second case, one would expect that to be relatively easy—the local authority would be told not to continue support. When someone else has been providing the support, it might not be so easy.
The situation could also arise where a local authority has to make a decision and the child is moved to somewhere else. As we know, that can cause problems. NASS is much better at informing local authorities of children who are newly arrived in their area as a result of dispersal. The problem has not been entirely overcome but the situation is much better than it was. At the other end of the process, the information is not necessarily passed on.
What happens at present when children are put into the dispersal system or families are removed from the country? Often, a school does not know about it. All it knows is that a child who has been attending the school is no longer attending. That creates a problem. That child can be regarded as missing. After the recent unpleasant incidents that have led people to think much more carefully about the protection of children, the precautionary approach would generally be taken.
A school or a welfare officer might report a child to the police as missing because they have no other information about what happened to that child. I know of cases where a child has been reported as missing to the police because the school does not know what has happened to them. The welfare officer does not know what has happened to them and has to assume the worst because he cannot take the risk of not doing so. In fact, the family has been removed
from the country or has been moved somewhere else in the NASS system. The information might have gone to the receiving authority, but not necessarily to the authority from which they had been moved.
Such communication issues are important. Although the Minister has said that we would want to reach that point only rarely and that the Government do not intend the operation of the clause to remove support from lots of children and their families, the point will be reached sometimes if the provisions enter into law. If the point is reached, it is vital that the information be passed, whether or not that is in the form suggested in the amendment. We must not have children slipping through the system or teachers and welfare officers getting unnecessarily concerned about children simply because they have moved somewhere else.
The amendment is built on a series of false assumptions, which, as I said on Second Reading, are to some extent the responsibility of a spin doctor from No. 10 putting it about wildly that children would be taken into care as a means of getting their parents out of the country when they had no further entitlement to be here. I do not blame the hon. Member for Winchester for being taken in by that spin, but we have the Minister's assurances that that is not the Home Office's intention, although that may be the intention of other parts of the Government.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he does not believe that benefits will be withdrawn from individuals and, as a natural consequence, that if benefits are withdrawn, there will not be some hardship on children?
I am saying that if the Government have their way, benefits will be withdrawn from individuals and that a small number of children may suffer hardship. However, it is not only the state that can redress that hardship. Again as I said on Second Reading, a range of organisations, funded by both the state and other people, are happy to weigh in and say how dreadful the legislation is. It would be better if they lent some of their time to supporting the families who are in this country and not supported by other means. The charities should take responsibility for supporting people in that position rather than pushing the responsibility from the hard-pressed national tax payer to the hard-pressed local tax payer, which appears to be one intention of the hon. Gentleman.
I find the hon. Gentleman's remarks extraordinary given the emphasis that the leader of the Conservative party put on the issue. Is he now saying that his leader was wrong to do that?
I am not saying that at all. I do not believe that children should be put in the position of being taken into care. If charities and others who have complained about the Bill are as concerned as they claim about the impact on the children of people who are found not to have a just cause for remaining in this country, they should do more to support them rather than push the responsibility on to our hard-pressed local tax payers, as the hon. Gentleman seems to want. It should not be necessary for children to be taken into care, and I do not believe that the Minister thinks that
it should be necessary. Indeed, she made it clear that that idea was not spin for which the Home Office was responsible.
The assumption that benefits being withdrawn means that people are destitute is also false. Many organisations throughout the country support people claiming asylum, while there are also those people's communities.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not see many asylum cases in his advice surgeries on the Isle of Wight. Those of us who do are now familiar with seeing people—usually single people, as families are currently supported—whose benefits have been withdrawn. Frequently, they can survive only on the charity of a friend or someone else in the community, usually someone who cannot afford to support them. They end up sleeping on one floor for a couple of nights, and then another and another, and living on next to nothing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because it has confirmed exactly what I set out to confirm: people do have charitable intent and are willing to provide support to the destitute. I do not say that there is no merit whatever in the amendment, but I am trying to set it in context. It would, of course, be helpful if schools did not go chasing around the country looking for children who have been removed from the country. That is a waste of schools' and of social services departments' time. I quarrel not with the amendment but with some of the assumptions on which the hon. Gentleman bases it.
I preface my brief remarks by saying that I believe that the clause is demeaning. It will punish innocent children for their parents' actions. It is particularly draconian because of the double whammy effect of clause 10 on the restriction of the right to a proper and effective appeal. I do not think that it reflects well on what is supposed to be a civilised society. I shall not repeat the remarks made by hon. Members on Second Reading, and—taking into account the recommendations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which suggested that we scrutinise carefully what the Government intend and how they plan to implement clause 7—I welcome the probing amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Winchester.
I should like to focus on the position in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Children Act 1989 south of the border. We have, north of the border, a separate Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which imposes statutory duties on the children's panel system in Scotland. I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of that system. The children's panel makes decisions on children going into care. Such decisions are made solely on what is deemed to be best for children, not on Government policy on asylum. The system's guidelines are clear in that respect. I wonder what thought, if any, has been given to the effects that the clause may have in Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK. I wonder what thought, if any, has been given to the interaction of reserved powers on asylum and devolved powers under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.
I should like to ask the Minister a specific question. I hope that she is able to respond to it, and if she cannot, I hope to catch her eye when she makes her winding-up speech. Recently, I raised an issue at Advocate-General's questions. In response, the Advocate-General said:
''Whether or not matters arise under the Social Work (Scotland) Act is still to be resolved.''—[Official Report, 2 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 360.]
That legislation has a direct bearing here. It is a devolved matter. Has it been resolved?
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said—I paraphrase him—that he was reassured by what the Minister said on Second Reading about the Bill's treatment of children. In this Committee, there are two Ministers from separate Departments on whom we must rely to speak for the Government. All I require of both of them is that they should stand up today and say that they will not mistreat children by using them as a weapon for an asylum policy. It does not seem to me that that is a difficult thing to do, if they are humane and civilised individuals—I am sure that they are—and are members of a humane and civilised Government. Whether I agree or disagree with the detail of the amendments is neither here nor there. I want to hear from the human beings representing the Government today in this Room that they wholly, sincerely and utterly disassociate themselves from any activity that may be carried out as a result of the Bill's being enacted without being amended, that would prejudice the well-being of children, in order to advance their asylum policy. It is as simple as that. That is all the Government need do, and they can do it today through these two Ministers.
In order to answer some of the points made in the debate, and before I get to the substance of the amendment, I will set out our intentions with the clause and, more specifically, how I intend that it should operate, because that is directly relevant to the issues of concern.
First, I repeat to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough our view that there is nothing intrinsic in this measure that is to do with taking children into care, and that nothing in the Bill will give effect to that. Beyond that, there is no intention to mistreat children. It is about other issues. The measure is designed to encourage people to take voluntary, assisted returns home when their claims fail, and to use the period to enforce returns if they do not do so.
Members have heard me speak about enforced returns, but have they been out with an arrest team and seen what that means? With families, it is always done with mixed teams of men and women who are specially trained, and it is done very well, but if one imagines someone turning up at people's front door at 4 or 5 in the morning and getting them and their children out of bed and taking them to a place of detention, ready to go on a plane, they will see why that is an experience that one would want to avoid, however well and professionally it is done by immigration officers, however kindly people are spoken to, and however long they are given to get their possessions together. I would want to avoid such
When a family co-operates with arrangements for their return, they will receive full support until their departure from the UK, while all that must be done to enable them to return is being done. That usually involves obtaining documents that they have destroyed at some point, or that they never had.
If people do not co-operate, they will receive up to four letters, an appointment for a personal interview early in the process to explain what will happen if they do not co-operate, continued offers of voluntary removal, and an enforced removal if we can do that in the period and it is the only option. I envisage that the number of families for whom we will have to certify removal of support will be minimal, but I understand hon. Members' concerns that there may be some—this measure will become law, so there may be some. I understand that hon. Members want to ensure that, if it comes to that in one or two cases, the arrangements at that point will be appropriate.
That point has been raised informally with me. The first letter will set out the detail of the procedure, and will be sent at the end of the appeal process when we are certain that appeal rights are exhausted. I certainly envisage that we will try to put that in some of the main languages, as it can be a standard letter. I will consider that.
People will then get a second letter inviting them for a personal interview. If they fail to appear for that interview, they will get a third letter warning them that support could end. Only if they then fail either to turn up or to co-operate will they receive a fourth letter, which will contain a notice that the Secretary of State is certifying their family for the purposes of support and that support will be terminated 14 days after that letter.
I hope that hon. Members will accept that as a measure of our intention to ensure that we get the full effect that we seek, which is not to turn off support for large numbers of families, but to ensure that as many families as possible return home either voluntarily, as we would prefer, or if not, before we get to the stage in the process when we can enforce a removal. However, I understand hon. Members' concerns that families that get to that point will want to know what the procedure will be from then on.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to inform the relevant local authority that a family had been rendered ineligible for support before withdrawal of support could take effect. I have no difficulties with the intention behind the amendment. It is important that we develop a good mechanism for liaising with local authorities when a decision to withdraw support has been made. In fact, we have already discussed the matter with the Local Government Association and will continue to do so. We need to establish both the best way to inform the
local authority and, crucially for the amendment, the most relevant and appropriate time to do so. Clearly we need to tell the authority once a decision has been taken to withdraw support, but we should also assess whether we need to alert it earlier in the process that we are drawing up now. I do not want to entertain the possibility of local authorities being involved in unnecessary work, but it is essential that we not only determine the best way for local authorities to discharge their duties, but establish the necessary procedures to assist them.
I met the LGA to discuss the issue before Christmas and officials have done so since then. Based on our preliminary discussions, I have agreed to assemble a working group of practitioners to work with my officials, which will help us to go through the options open to local authorities and address such questions as how and when we should inform local authorities that support is being withdrawn. I agree that it is essential that robust and workable procedures are in place before we implement the provisions. I am committed to ensuring that we do that.
For that reason, I do not think that there is any added value in a statutory requirement for the local authority to be informed. We would have to define what the relevant local authority is. However, the family move may move, so in practice the relevant authority might not always be the one in whose area they had resided. As a matter of both practice and agreement through the LGA, we would seek to inform the appropriate local authority if the family indicated an intention to move or stay with relatives. I am committed to the principle that local authorities should be informed and we should develop appropriate procedures to ensure that that happens. On that basis I hope that the hon. Member for Winchester will feel it unnecessary to press the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether section 17 or 20 of the Children Act would apply if the local authority decided that a child or children were in need. The authority would have to make that decision, but even if support was withdrawn, the children might not be in need, and the family might receive support from other relatives or member of the community. However, if it came to that, it would be for the authority to decide how most appropriately to discharge its statutory responsibilities under the Act, based on its assessment of the children's need. The same would apply to local authorities in Scotland under section 25 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Similarly, local authorities would have to assure themselves as to how they could best cater for children who they deemed to be in need.
The hon. Member for Perth mentioned the subject of the children's hearing. She will know that the children's panel deals with matters that would otherwise come before a court. If a child was accommodated by a local authority with the agreement of the parents, the panel would not be involved at all. If the parents agreed, the child would be supported under the provisions of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The children's hearing would
come into play only if the parents disagreed and the local authority thought that the child was at risk, and was considering compulsory action.
The hon. Lady also asked about the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. To my knowledge, those matters have not yet been resolved. However, I will make further inquiries and reply to her.
I think that that deals with hon. Members' points. I hope that the substance of my response has assured the hon. Member for Winchester that I take seriously the need to agree with local authorities how and when to inform them, to our satisfaction and theirs, that we have started the process of identification.
No, I want to finish.
I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Member for Winchester will not feel that it is necessary to press his amendment.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister. This is the first time in the process that I have begun to understand the Government's intentions in putting those measures in place.
I am reassured to some extent by what the Minister has said. I could debate her point about whether in essence it is better to have someone knocking at one's door at 4 o'clock and a forced removal or, at its extremity, to have one's child taken into care. Which is the most humane way forward? There is a debate to be had about which is the right approach, and I am not entirely convinced that it is wrong to say that a forced removal is inhumane. It may actually be a fairer and more upfront way to proceed. However, I take on the Minister's points about the complexities.
When it comes to co-ordination with local authorities, I am extremely encouraged that discussions have taken place with the Local Government Association. That is important, and I hope that, as those discussions continue and perhaps as the Bill proceeds through its stages, we will hear a little bit about what the local authorities are saying in return. I am sure that they have some genuine concerns. I hope that those concerns will be taken on board and that, if required, some changes will be made to the Bill.
Is the Minister able to clarify a couple of points about the interview process, and the four interviews that will take place? My understanding is that the four interviews—[Hon. Members: ''Four letters.'']—the four letters will be spread over a period of time, that while those four letters are going out support will still be in place, and that support will not be taken away after letter two. The support continues during the four letter period. The Minister is nodding so I assume that I am right.
Will the Minister clarify who will be present at the interview? Will there be interpreters available during the interview process? Is there any suggestion that it may make sense to bring in the local authority or someone at that point to explain the options that are being made available? If a lot of weight is put on the interview—a good idea—it is important that the right information is given to the individuals involved and
that they clearly understand it. Will they be able to have somebody there as an advocate—somebody they can take to the interview to explain the process so that they understand what is going on?
I also hope that the Minister will clarify what attempts will be made to check that the letters have actually gone to the right addresses. Often, people fail to reply to letters not because they are ignoring them or not co-operating but simply because they have not received them. I hope that there is to be a checking system, so that if nothing is heard after the second letter, and the person does not turn up to the interview, it is not automatically assumed that the person is not co-operating, but some attempt is made to confirm whether they have received the letter and the invitation to the interview.
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, he said earlier that it was arguable that a system whereby a forced removal took place fairly quickly was more humane than this system. Why, therefore, argue that we have to double and treble check that the four letters have been received? If we went for the immediate forced removal, there would not be any letters.
If the Minister is making the assumption that support will be removed on the basis of non-co-operation, it is important to establish whether it is genuine non-co-operation or whether the people have not received the letters and have therefore not turned up for the interview. That is the important clarification that is needed. Some individuals will move around quite a bit, so letter one might appear, but they move on and do not receive letter two. It is important to clarify that we will not assume that non-co-operation is the only reason why somebody has not responded to the letters or to the request for an interview.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at subsection (1)—I hope that I am dealing with the point that he is concentrating on—he will see the new paragraph 7A(3) of schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002:
''For the purpose of sub-paragraph (1)(d) if the Secretary of Sate sends a copy of a certificate by first class post to a person's last known address, the person shall be treated as receiving the copy on the second day after the day on which it was posted.''
There is not, in that regard, a rebuttable presumption. It is simply a presumption that is irrefutable. I hope that I have latched on a point that is germane to the hon. Gentleman's argument.
The hon. and learned Gentleman has indeed. He will note that his colleagues and I have tabled amendments Nos. 35 and 89, which address that point. Perhaps it would make more sense to look at the matter in detail when we reach them.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. On the assumption that they have understood at that stage the situation that they are in, and that there are requirements on them to do that,
that would be a fair assumption. One of the problems with the process set out by the Minister is that the individuals' realisation of the situation that they are in might take place at the point of the interview. The most important process is going to be the interview, with an advocate present. I wonder again whether the Minister might think that there is an advantage in bringing the interview forward in the process rather than moving it back, as I believe that that will be the critical point.
On whether the social services would have to use section 20 or section 31 of the Children Act, I understand that that will apply only on rare occasions. However, I should like to revisit the matter at some point, because as I understand it—I do not understand the technicalities of all these things—there are different requirements under various sections. I think that it is section 20, and the Minister seems to be saying 17. Whichever section applies, there is a requirement on the parent to give
some kind of approval at that point. We might need, later on, to consider the practicality of a parent in such circumstances giving approval, or not, to the intervention of the local authority.
In conclusion, the Minister has, at last, made me understand how the process can happen. I am more reassured about it, but remain doubtful that, for the numbers involved, this is the right route. Taking benefits away is not the right approach. However, on the practical approach that the Government are taking to doing something that I think is wrong, I have had reassurances. I want to revisit the matter, but at this stage I shall not press my amendment, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Six o'clock till Thursday 15 January at ten minutes past Nine o'clock.