We have had a useful debate on the clause and have covered a lot of ground and important detail on the implementation of the measure. I want to say at the outset that this is difficult territory for us all. We face the competing imperatives of wanting a fair system that treats all applicants in the same way and having to attend to the possible consequences for the families affected by the measure. I appreciate the spirit in which hon. Members have tried with me to strike the best possible balance between those competing imperatives.
As hon. Members will know, the current position is that failed asylum seekers with dependent children receive asylum support, both cash and accommodation, until they leave the United Kingdom, or fail to comply with a removal direction. In parenthesis, I should respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). He is right that a power to remove support at that stage already exists. It has not been used, and one reason for that is the difficulty relating to families destroying their documents. Without their assistance in the process of redocumentation, it has been difficult to use the power. Part of our intention with clause 7 is to encourage people not only to return but to help us to redocument them when they are in that position.
Under the clause, if the Secretary of State certifies that such people have failed without reasonable excuse to take steps to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily or to place themselves in a position in which they can do so—for example, by helping us to obtain a travel document on their behalf—asylum support for the family will cease.
In deliberations leading up to this Committee, the proposal was scrutinised by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It is interesting that the members of that Committee accepted the principle underlying the clause that it is absurd and unreasonable to continue to support failed asylum-seeking families indefinitely. The present removal directions system is both resource intensive and, necessarily for that reason, slow in effecting the increase in the number of departures that
we want to achieve and that members on both sides of the Committee, notwithstanding how they vote today, have said is reasonable for the Government to pursue.
It is constructive that all members of the Committee have accepted that the objective is reasonable and that it must be pursued. Not to pursue it would undermine a fair system and allow those who want to avoid a return home the possibility of doing so, which would be unfair to those who return voluntarily. It is also constructive that all members but one accept that our intention is not to render families destitute or to take children into care and that the Bill says nothing about doing that.
At this point, I must put on record my concern, which was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), about the information put out by the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) and her colleagues in the Scottish National party. The party website carries two claims, both of which are absolutely wrong. The first is:
''David Blunkett plans to punish refugees seeking asylum by taking their children away from them.''
It is wrong to claim that we intend to punish asylum seekers by taking their children into care, and every Committee member apart from the hon. Member for Perth understands how such children could go into care only in the event of a deliberate choice by their parents not to return home or to help us to return them.
''Scots' law won't let that happen. His writ will not run north of the border.''
It is wrong to say that powers and obligations for children, whatever their circumstances and however those circumstances arise, are different in Scotland from those in England and Wales. The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 gives authorities the same powers and obligations in the event of children being in difficulties, as the Children Act 1989 gives to authorities in England and Wales.
In the first few minutes of the Minister's statement, she has already attacked the SNP. That is a feature of new Labour, especially Scottish MPs, who I assume must be feeling defensive about their position. It is instructive that she did not exclude the possibility of a child being taken into care as a result of the clause. That is the issue that we have been debating, and she.
The Minister will also recall that I raised the question of the interaction between the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 and clause 7. I had already raised that matter in December with the Advocate-General for Scotland. The Minister promised to examine that and to reply to me but I have not yet received a response.
Let me make it clear that I do not intend to criticise the SNP. I want merely to put on record an absolute refutation and rebuttal of the claim published on the SNP website that we intend to punish people by taking children into care. Every other member of the Committee fully understands that there are no powers in the Bill to take children into care. The repercussions felt by children of any implementation
of the measures of the Bill will be as a direct consequence of the parents' failure to make the choices available to them. In every situation, the parents will have the possibility of accepting the offer of an assisted return home together as a family unit. Returning home is an available remedy for every family to whom the measure might apply.
Several hon. Members rose—
I give way first to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten).
I want to be responsible and to say the right things on websites. I would be irresponsible if I said that the Home Secretary will take children into care. However, would I be irresponsible in saying that a consequence of the measures is that, if parents ignore them, children could be taken into care? Would I be acting responsibly in publishing that on a website?
That would be misleading because the same thing could be said of the Children Act, or the Children (Scotland) Act. If parents behave in a certain way and ignore their parental obligations, a consequence of the Government's child protection legislation could be to take children into care. The hon. Gentleman's statement removes from the exposition the role and responsibilities that parents have. It is incomplete and therefore misleading.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing the hon. Member for Winchester to intervene before I did. He illustrated exactly what the hon. Member for Perth was demonstrating under her breath, which is that there has been a tendency to blame the Government for decisions taken by parents. I accept that the legislation allows a certain consequence, but that consequence is not that children be taken into care but that parents have less money than expected. That is entirely welcome in the eyes of most of my constituents, if those parents should not be in the country.
I do not want to fall into the trap of expressing pejorative views about the motives of parents or others who I do not know. I take the neutral and very reasonable line that, when people come to the end of the process and have had every opportunity in the process, it is entirely unreasonable, when there is a remedy open to parents, for support to continue indefinitely in the face of lack of co-operation in respect of returning home. I make no other judgment about people and their motives or intentions. I simply say that the current practice is unreasonable, we must act to end it and that is what the clause is about.
The hon. Member for Winchester and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned enforced removals, which is an important point. I do not necessarily share the hon. Gentleman's view that enforced removals are okay or preferable. I would prefer people to go home voluntarily. I can only say to him again, without labouring the point, that if he had been with me on a visit with an arrest team at 4 in the
morning and seen what that involves, he might have changed his view. All hon. Members need to appreciate how difficult and demanding enforced removals are in terms of resources, process and procedure. I shall give an example, and if hon. Members think it through, they will understand the point.
On the morning last year when I went out with an arrest team, there were eight or nine immigration officers, two cars and a people carrier. That number of staff is required because, if someone is apprehended, we need enough people to take that person to the nearest police station to be processed, as well as enough people to go to the next address safely. The safety of the officers and the people involved is paramount.
The team that I accompanied was out from 4 am until about 9.30. Teams go out at huge cost and are sometimes not very productive. People may not be at the address at that time or may have moved, and it is not always possible to know where people have moved. We do not get a good return on every outing on the resources that we have invested in trying to apprehend people. Let us face it—most people, for reasons that we can understand, do not want to go. They do not want to return home. The situation is very difficult.
The clause is the only way, or certainly the best way, to attempt to bring the realisation that support will not go on indefinitely to the forefront of people's minds at the point at which they exhaust their appeal rights in this country. They must take seriously the fact that support will or could be removed if they do not co-operate. However, while being robust and unapologetic about that objective, we are trying to ensure that we institute a fair and systematic process. I want to ensure, for my benefit as much as anyone else's, that the process gives people both opportunities and clear milestones, so that they are very clear about the consequences if they do not co-operate.
On the issue of removals, I understand, of course, the practical difficulties that the Minister has outlined, but will she say whether, in parallel to these new recommendations, there are plans to consider how the removals procedure works and particularly to speed it up, so that there is not such a long delay between a decision and a removal taking place?
Yes, although I think that the hon. Gentleman's point is slightly unclear. Not so long ago, he asked me to extend the process to 21 days.
But removals are part of the process. That is what we are trying to achieve. I am trying to strike a balance between a process that does not drift, and in which there is clarity about how long people will have from one milestone to another, and one that is not elongated. Once that process of drift starts, people begin to think, ''Well, they haven't knocked on my door yet. They may not come, so we
might as well dig in.'' We need to avoid that happening. People need to know that there is a process and that it will happen with appropriate speed.
As I have said on several occasions, we will do whatever we can to ensure that the impact on any child affected will be kept to a minimum. However, that depends in large measure on the decisions and attitudes of the parents concerned. We must accept that duality: the Home Office has a role, but the parents concerned also have a clear role and responsibilities, as some of my hon. Friends have rightly pointed out.
Does the Minister accept the point made to her by the hon. Member for Walthamstow? There is a judgment of Solomon involved. Some of the most genuine, caring and loving parents will say goodbye to their children and put them into care because they genuinely believe that that will be a better option for their children than returning to the land from which they came. Irrespective of whether their fear is well founded, they will make that judgment.
Like the hon. Member for Walthamstow, I saw children of the age of five or six in refugee camps from Kosovo, who had been sent alone by their parents into a foreign land to escape persecution. Their parents had taken that decision to preserve them from harm.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow used the fact that some young people come to the UK unaccompanied as the basis for his belief. It is true that numbers of unaccompanied young people come to the UK and claim asylum, but because of the countries from which they come, the evidence is that those young people are mostly not fleeing persecution, but seeking a better life. Most of those young people are aged 16 and 17 and, although the numbers of such young people have fallen by half over recent months in line with the numbers of asylum applications in general, none the less the numbers remain significant. However, I do not accept the conclusion that my hon. Friend drew from that: that parents already in the UK with children will necessarily abandon them. I shall develop that point further.
I simply want to remind the Minister of the biblical reference: Solomon exercises judgment by apparently threatening the child and thereby delivering justice to the child and the mother.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not get drawn into biblical analogies.
We cannot say that parents would never abandon their children in the UK. However, I believe that for a parent to do that would require a different mentality—a different attitude to his or her children from that which I would have to mine or hon. Members present would have to theirs. I cannot begin to believe that most parents would abandon their children to care and then disappear, not knowing what was happening to
those children or where they were. I cannot believe that asylum-seeking parents would approach that sort of issue with a different mindset, and with less anxiety about their children than the rest of us. However, we must entertain that possibility if we are to argue that parents would abandon their children to give them a better life.
When the immigration and nationality directorate comes to the decision-making process and in the subsequent process during which the four letters go out, and the possibility arises that there might be removal of benefit and consequential separation of parents from children, is it not the case that that the immigration and nationality directorate would take every action to detain the family as a whole and send them back as a whole rather than risk the consequences? That would be the case by default or by design, as the hon. Member for Winchester said.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Provided that we had at that time the documentation to enforce a removal, that is what would happen if a family were not co-operating with a voluntary removal.
In conclusion, I am grateful that the majority of Members, whatever their view about the principle—there is a difference there between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—have approached the issue constructively.In speculating on how the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and his colleagues are going to vote on the measure, I point out that he has said in Committee that the Conservatives support the intention and the measure itself. I do not see how they can with any face do otherwise, given the measure introduced in 1996, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow alluded, by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), now the Leader of the Opposition. It took support away from every claimant, not when their claim had failed but at the point of claiming. Had that measure not been overturned by the courts, that would have meant large numbers of families being destitute throughout the process of their claim, and not simply, as we are proposing, the withdrawal of support at the point at which a return home is the right course of action and the family becomes returnable because their claim has failed.
I intervene since the Minister has mentioned my party. She is aware that the clause contains at least two issues of principle. While we understand the Government's approach in relation to the major concept of the clause, the Minister must not forget that it was my amendment in regard to an appeal this morning, supported by my hon. Friends, which resulted in the Government saying that they would go back and consider a method of appeal. When the clause contains some such suitable measure, we will be able to give it more wholehearted support, but it is not there yet. The Minister has made a concession to me, so she will understand that we had points both for and against the measure.
The hon. Member expounds his difficult position with his usual elegance, but I still think that it is a difficult position.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Members opposite in this Committee have another problem, which is to square the fairly sensible and level-headed approach that they have shown today with the comments of their party leader during the Queen's Speech debate? I remember intervening on the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. In response, he did not, as the hon. Member for Woking said, just express reservations; he launched into a tirade against the Bill. We thought that he was going to oppose the entire Bill, but actually his comments were focused on the measure in this clause. It will be interesting to see how Members opposite square what they do today with the lead from their party leader.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have always wondered, since the Leader of the Opposition took that view, why he took his briefing from the newspapers.
I do not know what role the shadow spokesperson normally plays in briefing the Leader of the Opposition on what the Government are proposing, but the Leader of the Opposition clearly took his briefing from newspapers, which, contrary to being briefed by No. 10, had simply taken a line from a question that I was asked directly by a member of the Home Affairs Committee in previous days. I had to answer it directly and honestly, but the newspapers turned it on its head and made a claim in the Sunday papers that week. It is surprising that the Leader of the Opposition simply read the Sunday papers and did not carry out any further research into what the Government were proposing.
Since the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has set me into a biblical frame of mind I think that redemption is to be welcomed wherever it may come. That fact that the Tory party wishes to redeem itself from the position it was in should be welcomed. We should expect of course that some parties are unredeemable.
I share my hon. Friend's general view that when people return to the fold it is always very welcome.
Mr. Malins rose—
Mr. Heath rose—
I shall take brief interventions. We have the prospect of getting through the business early today, but we must not allow ourselves the indulgence of talking rubbish.
This banter is occasionally to be welcomed, but I think the Committee will accept that the Opposition are approaching the matter with a degree of seriousness. We can pull each other's legs
about what has been said elsewhere indefinitely, but the Committee does its best work when it focuses on the issues before it. The Minister has a great deal of time for some of the points that we have made today and we do not want to go home feeling that we have been beaten about the head by Government Members.
I note the hon. Gentleman's comments. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) no longer wishes to intervene.
I will draw my remarks to a conclusion by saying, in relation to the hon. Member for Woking's last point, that I have responded today with further considerations and I have had no difficulty in doing so. However, I want to make it clear to hon. Members that that is also because, since the Bill was published, my colleagues, officials and I have been thinking about how best to implement the measure.
It may surprise some members of the Committee that the Home Secretary and I and all our colleagues demand of ourselves that we are comfortable with what we propose in legislation and with its possible impact—the way it will work. I do not know whether the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) set himself a different standard when he was a Minister, but that is the standard that I demand of myself, as do my colleagues. I was well prepared to respond to some of these measures because, as I made it clear, it had also occurred to me that there might be a better way of doing things in relation to the appeal. I demand that of myself, and I am satisfied that as far as possible we are getting the balance right.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 3.