I welcome the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. Having spent a lot of time, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, developing the White Paper, I also welcome the opportunity to be a member of the Committee, and to work with the other members to bring the measure to fruition.
Hon. Members will be aware that clause 7 was inserted into the Bill by Members in the other place, to add the Border and Immigration Agency to the list of agencies that are subject to section 11 of the Children Act 2004. The intention was obviously to extend to the agency the duty of safeguarding children. I hope that all hon. Members will acknowledge that safeguarding children has been and continues to be a top priority for the Government.
The Government have listened to the thoughtful and powerful arguments that have been made on this issue about whether those responsible for running the immigration system should have a legal duty to ensure that, consistent with the primary duty to secure our borders, they discharge their functions having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children—the duty set out in section 11 of the Children Act 2004.
We welcome the considerable work already undertaken by the UK Border and Immigration Agency to implement a code of practice to protect children from harm while they are in the UK. I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that the UKBA already has high standards of care compared with similar bodies, and has worked consistently with the Children’s Commissioner for England. However, we want to go further, learning from experience, in introducing the new code.
Having considered the arguments fully, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families have agreed that aligning the UKBA with those agencies that are already subject to section 11 duty is the right thing to do for children and young people. All agencies working with children and young people should be able to consider how they can safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Now is the right time to introduce a section 11 duty as part of a reformed, streamlined immigration service, working to improve the United Kingdom’s security through stronger border protection, while also welcoming legitimate travellers and trade.
We have until now concentrated, rightly, on getting the infrastructure in place, focusing first and foremost on implementing the system. However, the establishment of UKBA now provides an opportunity to bring a stronger focus not just on the status of children and young people arriving in the UK, but on their safety and welfare.
It is important that we make the right legislative provision, to bind the UKBA effectively into a section 11 duty, while taking account of the agency’s particular distribution of legal functions, and its UK-wide remit. The current provision in the Bill does not address the proposed organisation of UKBA, nor does it encompass that range of its functions.
Today, the Government are giving a public commitment to pursue a section 11 duty for UKBA, but we intend to do so not in this Bill but in the forthcoming immigration Bill, which will be published in draft in July. The intention is that it will be introduced in the 2008-09 Session, and I therefore want to give Members notice of my intention to introduce an amendment on Report to remove clause 7 from the Children and Young Persons Bill. It is right that the duty affects the operation of UKBA not just in England and Wales but throughout the UK. It is also right that we take the necessary time and effort to work with colleagues to find a legislative solution that is accepted throughout the UK, works consistently in the interests of children and young people throughout the UK, and is consistent with, and obviously does not undermine, the integrity of our asylum and immigration system.
I hope that Members will accept the Government’s intentions and the commitment that I have given today, and will support the way in which we intend to proceed.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. She did give us slight prior notice of her intention, and that was helpful. I shall make some comments about why the principle behind clause 7 is important, and welcome, cautiously, what the Minister said.
Clause 7 was added to the Bill in the other House, when an amendment moved by my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton received widespread support from all parts of the House and was passed by more than 50 votes. So, there is widespread support for its inclusion, and those of us who were around for the proceedings of the Children Act 2004 had a debate then about whether it should have been included on the list in what is now section 11 of the 2004 Act. Section 11 contains 13 different agencies on whom there has been placed a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, ranging from the obvious, such as children’s services authorities, to strategic health authorities, youth offending teams and so on. We had a lot of debate about which of those should have been added.
Four years on, this Bill represented the next opportunity to place a duty on the immigration services, and some would say that it has been four years too long, that we should not have to wait any longer and that we had hoped that it would go through in clause 7. However, having said that, I appreciate that clause 7 is technically deficient. The Minister alluded to the fact that the Border and Immigration Agency has become the UK Border Agency, and it cannot be covered because it is a UK-wide body that the Bill does not therefore deal with. There was a problem with the way in which clause 7, which was perfectly well intentioned, was fashioned in the other House. The problem needed to be dealt with, and clearly, those who supported the inclusion of the clause will need to see the detail that the Minister has promised to produce in draft with the Bill in July—before the summer recess, I hope. We are taking a deal on trust, but one is heartened by the Minister saying that it is the right thing to do and that she is intent on introducing the duty in principle.
Importantly, however, if the provision is to be effective, it must lead to a culture change in the immigration service. We are dealing with very vulnerable children who come to this country seeking asylum as refugees, and with trafficked children. This is a group—in some cases, unfortunately, a growing group—of very vulnerable children who desperately need all agencies with whom they come into contact, placed under a duty to safeguard and promote their welfare, to act in their best interests.
It would be useful to firm up the Minister’s commitment that a duty equal to the weight of that carried in section 11 of the 2004 Act would be introduced in the new legislation. As there are two Departments involved—the Home Office, with which the Minister has personal experience, and the Department of Children, Schools and Families—it might be useful to know which is to be the lead Department. In that way, children’s interests will not be swallowed up in the Home Office and the DCSF will have an ongoing role in monitoring how this duty pans out, as it has for the 13 other bodies already covered under the 2004 Act.
Given that the Bill to be produced before the recess is a draft Bill for the Queen’s Speech, we are looking at the actual Bill being published in December. We could be waiting at least another year for it to come into effect after the passing of the legislation. We could be looking at a delay of more than five years from the first opportunity to include the immigration authorities within the Bill in 2004.
Will the Minister assure us, insofar as she can be responsible for Government timetabling of Bills, that this will be seen as a priority? Can anything be done in the meantime in terms of clear guidance from her Department, or jointly with the Home Secretary—not backed up by statutory duty yet—so that the immigration authorities can at least prepare on the basis of a strong likelihood and a firm intention by the Government that a formal statutory duty will be placed upon them in the not-too-distant future?
I do not wish in any way to denigrate or undermine the important processes that currently happen within the immigration service, greatly under pressure as it is. We have to balance what is achievable and practical without placing the service under undue pressures, which might have knock-on effects.
We are dealing with perhaps the most vulnerable subsets of children and it is imperative that this is taken seriously and introduced unequivocally on an equal basis to the current section 11 arrangements. Everything possible must be done to speed up its introduction. Any comments from the Minister on that score would be greatly appreciated.
I congratulate the Minister for Children, Young People and Families because I am sure that there has been considerable dialogue between the two Departments. I welcome this as a step forward.
I agree with the Minister that the Government have made safeguarding children a top priority and I have been proud to be a Member of Parliament during that period. It has to be said, however, there has been a dual system of safeguarding: one for children who are UK citizens and then the others. Surely, every child matters and we should be putting the child first throughout, regardless of status?
I agree that we will need to see the detail before making detailed comments. I hope that all the organisations will be fully engaged—they come under the Refugee Children’s Consortium—in determining the details and the timetable. I, too, must express concern about the time that this has taken. I remember our discussions in the Committee that considered the 2004 Act when I joined forces with Hilton Dawson, the former Member for Lancaster and Wyre, on this issue, as the Minister will recall. I am sad that it has taken four years; nevertheless the fact that we have reached the right conclusion is welcome.
I am aware that a halfway house—“Better Outcomes”—has been discussed with the immigration authorities, and I wonder what can be done in the interim between making the momentous announcement today and the final implementation of the measures. Because there is a change in culture, we could be doing a lot more in the pathway to the legislation being passed. I, too, recognise that clause 7 was technically deficient, but my greatest regret is the time we waited, plus the long delay for the next immigration Bill. Overall, however, we are taking a step in the right direction.
In the spirit of the dialogue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole referred between the DCSF and the Home Office, what discussions have taken place or will take place with the National Assembly Government in Wales, not least because we are in the vexed area of a reserved matter, which is delivered in a devolved context? That also applies to colleagues in Scotland.
First, let me say how very much I welcome the responses from Opposition Members and their recognition that our intention is genuine. I am pleased that we can now move forward in the way that I outlined. I am also pleased that they acknowledged, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham intimated, the difficult tensions and dilemmas in maintaining effective immigration controls. No-one on this Committee is more acutely aware of those difficulties than I. It is important that our nation not attract organised traffickers shipping children across to England because it looks like being an easy place to stay for anyone who manages to get here. We must balance that with our desire to safeguard and protect children while they are here, although the majority will not end up with the right to remain here. Sometimes, that balance is genuinely difficult to strike.
We have moved forward. It is not that nothing has happened during the past four years. The BIA has a duty to protect children from harm and a code of practice has been developed to which the agency is now working, but as is often the case in politics, things have moved on, and it has become possible to take further steps because of a change in context. It is largely due to the effective way in which the Government have been able to reassure people about immigration control that we have a different context in which we can move forward and the immigration agency has moved forward. I am pleased that we have reached that point.
However, to answer another point raised by the hon. Gentleman, the right place to scrutinise the duty will be during consideration of the Bill that establishes and gives a legal constitution to a new UK-wide agency. The policy decisions about the constitutional form of the agency, what powers it will have and how those powers will relate to the powers that the Secretary of State will retain on immigration have not yet been finalised. The right place for hon. Members besides us to scrutinise the duty that we will introduce will be in the context of the Bill to set up the UKBA. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the duty will be equal and will establish parity in the obligations between the agencies that are now subject to the section 11 duty with a duty under the new legislation. In drafting the provision, colleagues and officials in the Home Office and my Department will, jointly, consult other organisations.
On the further delay and whether anything can be done in the mean time, which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked about, it is important that we get the measure right. We are making a major commitment in establishing the UKBA, and as I have said, it is right to make this provision in the context of the Bill dealing with the UKBA and the relevant changes. However, we have the code of practice and the current duty and we want to ensure that we learn the lessons from the developments that they have already been brought about in terms of changing culture and practice in the agency dealing with immigration, and to build on those lessons as we move forward with the equivalent duty. Obviously, based on the commitment that I have given and in the context of current thinking, the setting up of the UKBA will take place in the knowledge that this statutory duty will be placed on it, and that will inform all the thinking and planning from this point onwards.
I hope that we can proceed in the way that I have outlined. I am not asking the hon. Members to disagree to the clause at this stage, but I will do so on Report.