We will now hear oral evidence from Still Human Still Here, the Refugee Council and the Scottish Refugee Council. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 10.15 am. Welcome to our witnesses; will you please introduce yourselves for the record?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. This question is directed to Judith Dennis and Mike Kaye in the first instance. You have both expressed concern about the adverse consequences of the provisions on the removal of support in the Bill. Will you tell the Committee what, in headline terms, your concerns are? You have also expressed a concern that the provisions will fail to further the Government’s stated aim, so as well as the adverse consequences, will you outline how, if at all, the Bill will support the Government’s stated aim?
Judith Dennis: We think that the Bill is incompatible with the processes for families to engage with the Home Office if they want to return or have come to the end of the asylum process—these measures would not be compatible with that. The Bill will shift responsibility to local authority children’s services, which have a duty to support children in need. We do not think that it will achieve the desired outcome, partly because families will inevitably lose touch with the Home Office—there will be no incentive for them to keep engaging with the Home Office to try to resolve their situation. Indeed, when a similar measure was piloted in the past, that is what happened. Mike can probably talk more about the impact on individuals.
Mike Kaye: To take up that point, one of the Bill’s goals is to encourage the departure of refused asylum seekers with no lawful right to remain. Members of the Committee should be in no doubt that the Bill will not increase voluntary returns or forced removals. You do not need to take my word for that. We already have on the books section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which allows these very measures to be put in place. The Home Office’s own review of a pilot carried out in 2005 found that a third of families absconded. The review compared the pilot with a control group of people who continued to be supported, and the number of people who absconded in the pilot was double that in the control group who were supported. The number of forced removals in the pilot was one family, as compared with nine in the control group. The Home Office’s conclusion was that it did not significantly increase voluntary returns and that it should not be used as a blanket policy. It is ironic, therefore, that 10 years on, we are trying to implement the very policy that did not work beforehand. You only have to look at other reviews that have been carried out, where Home Office staff have said, “You should keep refused asylum seekers supported because it allows them to be removed”, yet the Home Office is ignoring the advice of its own staff.
I have to say that this is really an abdication of immigration control—if Committee Members are concerned about immigration control, they should be concerned about this measure—but much worse, it is an abdication of responsibilities to children’s welfare. Bear with me, and I will explain what the impact will be on the people affected. Asylum seekers generally do not have great health. You have people who have experienced torture or who have witnessed or had traumatic experiences. The Royal College of Psychiatrists said that their mental health deteriorates on impact with the system. If they are pregnant, they are three times more likely to die than the general population—that is in general. The level of support that they are on, and most of them would be destitute, is £5 a day to meet the essential living needs of food, clothing, toiletries, transport and anything else. I am not saying that you will starve on £5 a day—you will not—but if you are on that for an extended period of time, it will have consequences for your health and wellbeing.
Currently, we have more than 3,500 asylum seekers waiting more than six months for an initial decision, and appeals are listed six months ahead. Now, if you get to the point where you cut that group off entirely from support, their health will deteriorate much faster than that of the general population. It will cause and exacerbate existing health problems. You only have to look at some of the serious case reviews from the last few years, where asylum-seeking mothers have died from health issues. Those serious case reviews have found that the removal of support was one of the exacerbating factors, so we should be in no doubt that this will have very serious consequences.
You have mentioned the adverse consequences and the number of families in the pilot, some years ago, who disappeared off the radar. How does this compare with supported returns—family support in the return programme—in terms of achieving the Government’s aim?
Mike Kaye: As I just mentioned, one of the aims is getting people to return home, and it is less effective once you remove support, because, as Home Office staff have said, when you do not know where someone is, it is that much more difficult to locate and remove them, so the absconding rate is double once you remove support. Even if asylum seekers wish to stay in contact, and there is no incentive for them to do so, it is very difficult once they become destitute, so this does not achieve the stated goal of trying to get people to return home at the end of the process.
Thank you. You have mentioned children and the impact on them on a number of occasions. Will you give a bit more detail on what the impact might be on local authorities if support is withdrawn for children that come within their area? How does that work and what might the consequences be for the local authority?
Judith Dennis: The local authority has a duty to all children in its area who are in need, so it will be obliged under that legislation to assess the needs of families and of those children, and to provide services accordingly. Of course, in this country, we are very proud of the Children Act in England and Wales, and the Children Acts in Scotland. We are under no illusion that local authorities will want to fulfil those duties and will want the Government to support them financially for that, but we can see from other families who have no recourse to public funds that local authorities are bearing the responsibility of providing for the children. Of course, if you are going to provide for the children, it is both morally and financially sensible to provide for the whole family, so we think there will be a great impact on local authorities.
Following up on that, you have mentioned finances. Are there circumstances in which you envisage that it will be necessary to remove a child from a family in order for support to be provided by the local authority?
Judith Dennis: That should only be done if there are concerns about the parenting, as with other families. It is not a principle of the Children Act that we remove children from their parents and carers if they are doing a perfectly fine job of looking after them. The Children Act was brought in with that principle in mind: that families should stay together, because they are the best people to bring up their own children, and that should happen regardless of the financial difficulties they are in. That is why we have the Children Act to provide that financial support where necessary.
Mike Kaye: It is instructive to look at the section 9 pilot again. Barnardo’s did a review with 33 local authorities and none of them thought that section 9, which is the equivalent of what we are looking at with this clause, was compatible with the Children Act. They all had concerns about the transfer of cost to local authorities, which would not be reimbursed; the fact that they would still have to do reviews of whether the child was in need and whether human rights were being breached; and that they were opening themselves up to litigation. All those concerns are equally valid for this Bill. The Government’s intention is that local authorities will not support, but I do not see how you can square the circle with the Children Act in that respect.
Thank you. Finally from me, there are provisions in the Bill to prevent appeals against decisions on support. Can you give some evidence as to the quality of the decisions currently being made about the support available in such circumstances?
Mike Kaye: Yes. On the Home Office’s decision-making on asylum support, just to be clear: if someone thinks that there is an obstacle to them returning—for example, they are too sick to travel or they are trying to return but their Government will not issue them with documents—the Government should provide them with support. The same is true for the Bill. In practice, that is often very restrictively interpreted. For example, even when the Iranian embassy was closed, Iranian asylum seekers who were trying to return home and could not get documents were still refused support.
If you are refused support, you can go to the asylum support tribunal. Currently, with more than 60% of cases that go to the tribunal, either the case is overturned by the tribunal, so the asylum seekers are given support; or the decision is remitted back to the Home Office because the tribunal does not think it was right; or the Home Office withdraws the decision because the tribunal thinks it is flawed. If you are getting more than 60% of decisions wrong, how can you take away that means of appeal? You are actually leaving people destitute. That decision to leave a family destitute is far too important to remove the right to appeal, especially when the vast majority of those decisions are wrong in the first place.
Mr Kaye, do you agree, in principle, that there should be an ability to take sanctions against people who have no right to be in this country and are frustrating efforts to remove them or not co-operating with a voluntary returns mechanism? Do you accept that principle as a legitimate policy response?
Mike Kaye: Absolutely. We have a system whereby we try to discover whether people meet the criteria for refugee status. It is a very tough measure. You have to prove that you are being persecuted as an individual, that your Government are unwilling or unable to protect you, and that there is no other area of your country that you can go back to and be safe. It is a high measure to prove. I fully accept that if people do not meet that and if that assessment is accurate, they need to return to their home countries.
What I have highlighted is that the measures in the Bill will not help you to return individuals who have come to the end of the process. If you really want to return people at the end of the process, you need to stay in touch with them. Quite often an equation is made between refused asylum seekers and abusive asylum seekers. That is not the case for the vast majority. Last year, the Home Office refused 70% of Iraqis, 70% of Libyans, and 65% of Afghans. I am not necessarily saying that those decisions are wrong. I am saying that you need to understand that those people at the end of the process still have a fear about returning and that is why they do not always co-operate. I take the Minister’s point that sometimes people are not co-operating because they do not want to go home and they should rightfully go home, but for an effective policy, you need to stay in touch with people to encourage them to return voluntarily return or if forced removal is to take place.
There is obviously a distinction that can be drawn. Clearly, you are not supportive of certain aspects of the policy, but I think you have taken the principle. Can I ask about the safeguards that would operate? Am I right in saying that the provisions under section 55 of the Children Act would apply and that provisions relating to destitution would be there in terms of support?
Mike Kaye: I think it is section 55 of the Immigration Act; but this is a question for you, Minister, about something that we do not understand. You said on Second Reading that the protections in the Children Act would be retained. You said in the consultation that safeguards would be introduced for children. I do not understand how you can safeguard children from destitution when it is the explicit aim of the policy that children should not get support from statutory services, local authorities or central Government. Will you explain that to Members, because I cannot square that circle.
Can I just jump in? I should have explained to witnesses—I apologise for not doing it at the beginning—that Ministers love these sessions. It is a time that they get to ask questions, rather than getting grilled. I want to bring some more Members in, because I have about five queueing up to ask questions.
Could I just jump in? I wonder whether Mr Wilkes and Judith Dennis would like to speak on this particular point as well, so that we hear from all three witnesses.
John Wilkes: I think that we still have to support families and those whose appeal rights are refused while engaging with them about the options for return. Taking away support does nothing to facilitate that; all it does is force them to think about what support they can get or force them to disappear from the system. There are no other families in the UK who do not have some form of entitlement to support, so I do not see why these families, who we are trying to work with on their decision—and ultimately, for people who are in that category, on their removal—should not have support. There is no evidence, from any of the other initiatives the Home Office has tried, that taking away support, particularly for families, is going to achieve the policy goal of removal. That is what the policy goal is: we need to look at other ways of achieving it.
Judith Dennis: I absolutely agree. It is frightening to think of the alternative. We are actually talking about making families destitute, so that they have no means of support. What are they going to do? I do not think that that is going to encourage them to go along to the Home Office and say, “May I sign up for voluntary return, please?” The family returns process is a better process for families, because it takes into account their complex situations and the fact that they have very difficult decisions to make, and that those decisions may take some time to come to. If you are a family who fears that their daughter is going to be subject to female genital mutilation on return, but you have not been able to prove that, you are still going to have that fear. Your fear is then, “Which is better? I’m between a rock and a hard place; I don’t know whether to stay here and take my chances. I may get exploited, I may have to live on the streets, I may have to take support from strangers and sleep in their houses and put myself in dangerous situations. Or do I take my family back to what I think is a dangerous situation”. The family returns process encourages engagement on an ongoing basis. It is a process with four stages; it is very well set out in policy. Family engagement managers are employed specifically to talk to families about those very difficult decisions that they have to make. So I do not think it is reasonable to portray these people as just sitting about, avoiding immigration control and refusing steadfastly to go back to where they came from. It is much more complex than that.
Down to brass tacks, then. I think what all three of you are saying is that those families who have exhausted the appeals process, should not be in the UK and should be returning home should get indefinite, automatic support ongoing. Is that what you are all saying?
How far does that go, though? That is the question I am trying to get at, because at the end of the day these people are in our country illegally. How far do we expect the taxpayer to continue paying, whether it is for housing or whatever, for people who should not be in our country?
Mike Kaye: When you say indefinitely, what we are talking about is resolving that case. That is the crux of what we are trying to do—to resolve the case, by those people either returning to the country of origin or getting status in this country. When we say that you are better off supporting them, we are thinking about the taxpayer. This is not saving money, it is simply diverting the cost to the local authority and building up costs down the line. The longer someone stays in the country without your engaging with them—if you make them destitute and they then disappear—the more difficult it is to remove them later on down the line. That is one of my concerns with the measure. It is not effective for immigration control, it is certainly not effective for child protection, and you are not resolving the case; you are simply abdicating responsibility. The Government should not be doing that.
I have a quick question for Judith, going back to something that you said earlier with regard to the Children Act. Obviously, you have to have valid reasons for removing children, but most children get removed because of neglect, and if a family is left destitute they cannot feed and clothe their child. So do you not envisage child protection departments removing children on that basis if support has been withdrawn?
Judith Dennis: It would not usually be the first step. A social worker will try to resolve the issues that arise out of the family’s situation, depending on the causes and the actors who are playing each part. We have seen, from their recourse to public funds, families who are supported by local authorities. Often social workers will engage with the family to try to help them to resolve their situation. We certainly would not expect social workers to be stepping in and taking people’s children away in the first instance.
Social work ethics mean that you have to resolve the situation and try to keep families together where possible. Most of the social workers we speak to would not feel comfortable about taking people’s children away on the basis that the Government have made the family destitute and forced them to neglect the needs of their children.
I used to be a child protection social worker myself, so I totally get what you are saying, but social services departments are overstretched and are really sinking because the resources are not there. If they cannot fill the gap and help that family, that child will go hungry and will be neglected, and it is easier to pay for a child than to pay for the entire family, so could we see some perverse outcomes, with children being removed from their families? Is that a risk at all, do you think?
Judith Dennis: It could be, further down the line. I hope that it would not be. My understanding is that it is much more difficult and costly to take a child into care than to provide basic support such as the asylum support regime does, as has been mentioned before. The support is basic and is to avoid destitution. Taking the child into care means that you have to pay another carer to look after that child when the family are perfectly able to do so. The ethical argument and the economic argument mean that we hope we would not see that, but it is—
Two quick questions from me. The first is on what happens at present to engage with these families. Mr Kaye, you were just saying that the longer we do not engage with them, the more there is a problem; yet, as I have just heard it, Ms Dennis, you were outlining the current process and saying that it was chock full of engagement. Will the panel comment on the ways in which current engagement is different from what happened under the 2005 process, which I understand hinged largely on corresponding with people rather than engaging with them, perhaps as happens at present?
Judith Dennis: The 2005 pilot took away support, or threatened people with taking away their support if they were not taking steps to remove themselves. Partly as a result of the lack of success of that programme, and of hearing from some families in parliamentary work done by various agencies about the complexity of the situation, this programme was established. There are several stages at which family conferences take place, and specialist family engagement managers who understand the process invite the families—parents and sometimes children—to meetings. They are invited to think about whether or not they want to go and they visit the family, and those kind of things. There are lots of steps. Most of the process is designed to help people think about voluntary return, because there are fewer barriers to removal if someone agrees to go rather than being forced to go. So measures that just take away support, rather than put in more support, have been found not to work, and those that put in more support have some more success.
Mike Kaye: I just draw attention to the fact that—the point that I was making—if you cut off support, you cut off all that work, because you no longer engage with that individual and they no longer engage with you. The other point that I would make is that under the Bill we are looking at—the Home Office is talking about—cutting off support to families after 28 days. That is an entirely insufficient amount of time to work with a family to get them to return home. In fact, under the voluntary return programme you would be looking at 90 days. This is for delegated powers, but it would be useful if we could get the Minister to indicate that the minimum would be 90 days.
My second question looks back somewhat. Mr Kaye’s organisation, Still Human Still Here, in 2008 gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the then draft citizenship and immigration legislative proposals. Your organisation stated:
“Government asylum support policy is leaving many refused asylum seekers destitute”— that was clearly the then Government in 2008—and that that destitution
“results from the current statutory scheme” of that Government. Why is it that two major British political parties, which most recently represented around two thirds of the UK population, would want to pursue such measures when they have been democratically elected?
Mike Kaye: To be frank, it is a total mystery to me after 20 years how Governments can continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome. Over 20 years Governments have basically been implementing policies that are short-term, deterrent policies, and they have not been resourcing the system to do the job properly. It is a huge frustration to me, because if Government really supported the Home Office to do the job properly, we would not be looking at a problem with asylum seekers. We have had a static number of asylum seekers for 10 years—25,000 applications—well within the realms of the Government’s ability to deal with quickly and efficiently, but we have under-resourced the system so dramatically that we have not dealt with it effectively. The measures being put forward are a repeat of measures that have failed before. We have evidence from previous Governments, all democratically elected—I do not know why we are even talking about whether they are elected or not. They all try to do the same things and, if you look at the evidence, you will see that those things have not worked. That is what is so frustrating—to look at measures in the Bill that are replicating measures that have not worked previously.
John Wilkes: I have worked in this field for seven years now, and one of the observations that I would share is that the system has been in a state of constant churn over that seven years. Asylum is a very complicated thing—it is one of the most complicated activities that the Home Office has to do under its responsibilities—and it has had perpetual change in all sorts of aspects of the system, and I mean major organisational changes. So the system has no time to settle down and to have a coherent overview of how these things are done. Doing a pilot in one area of the system when there are things that need to be addressed in other parts of the system means that you do not get the results you need. The system needs some time to settle down and to enable a much more focused approach on the whole system. In that way, you will start to achieve better results.
Mike Kaye: If you look back over the past 20 years—I totally agree with what John is saying—what you see is different Governments setting different targets. What you are generally doing is shifting very limited resources to meet a separate target, which just creates a backlog in a different aspect of the asylum system, and you have big structural changes, which are administratively inefficient, waste time and do not deliver the end goals that you are looking for. If we want to save money, to make the system work more efficiently and to have quicker and more accurate decisions, we need to resource the whole system properly.
My question is specifically to John Wilkes. It is about the Scottish issue. Obviously, every country has different legislation. You have been through the changes in legislation coming from this House, so I hope that you will be able to advise us about the impact of this legislation, and the challenges that that presents, in terms of Scottish legislation.
John Wilkes: One of the things we said in our evidence was that the Committee should ensure that the Immigration Bill considers whether the legislative consent process needs to be undertaken with the Scottish Parliament under the Sewel convention, which is actually going to be put into statute under clause 2 of the Scotland Bill, which is currently going through the House. We say that because the whole concept behind legislative consent is that whatever this Parliament does should have no unintended consequences on the business of the other Parliament. There are a number of aspects of the Bill, particularly on asylum support, that we feel would have an impact, in the way colleagues have identified, on local authority responsibilities and on duties to children, which are framed in different legislation in Scotland. There is the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 and the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, which, in Scotland, defines local authorities’ responsibilities in terms of a duty of care to people who have no other resources. We believe that one of the duties of this Bill Committee is to ensure that there are no unintended consequences. What the Home Office often says about immigration legislation is that the intention is around immigration. What Sewel also says is that you have to look at the impact of that legislation, and we think that the impact of this legislation potentially involves legislative consent considerations between the two Parliaments.
Mr Kaye, could I take you back to what I thought was the nub of your argument? You said—I think I heard you correctly—that as soon as financial support is removed, people lose contact. Can I put the other side of the coin to you? If somebody’s application is finally refused, do they not, against that backdrop, and irrespective of whether financial support is provided, run and hide, because they do not like the decision, and they do not want to leave the country? I am not persuaded that an element of financial support will, in any way, shape or form, encourage them to stay in a continuous dialogue with the Home Office and agencies while preparations for their removal are made.
Mike Kaye: Refused asylum seekers are not one homogeneous group; there are obviously lots of different people in different circumstances. Some people want to go home, and they take voluntary removal. That can take a long time; their Governments may not co-operate in providing them with documents. Others may be too sick to travel. Others should return home, but may abscond. You do not have to take my word for it; I am giving you evidence from studies that have been done. Where you have families that are supported, they generally do not abscond; they stay in touch with the authorities. If you cut off support, and you have refused asylum to a family or an individual, not only do they have no incentive to stay in touch but it will be very difficult for them to do so once they are destitute. It is the Home Office’s own staff who are saying, “Keep them supported, because then we will know where they are. We can stay in touch with them and encourage them to return home.”
I am sorry. We could go on for an hour about this, but we are really up against the clock, and I have other Members to get in. I would just like the other two witnesses to say whether they agree with the statement that has just been made.
I did have a few more, if time allowed. I shall try to be brief.
These questions are to all three of you, and they probably need yes or no answers. While you are supporting or advising people going through the process, do you take them to end of the telescope they do not want to look from—that is, how will a decision whereby they are not allowed to remain be implemented? Do you do that in advance on a “just in case, let’s keep all the bases squared” basis?
I was in Stockholm last year on a cross-party delegation, where we were all impressed by the rate of compliance and returns under the Swedish system. I just wondered what lessons you all felt we could learn from other countries, particularly in relation to this issue of withdrawal of support, in terms of effective compliance, because that is something that we all share an interest in.
Judith Dennis: One concern when families have come to the end of the asylum process is the lack of legal aid for their immigration cases. Somebody is not often either an asylum seeker or an immigrant; during their time here they may well be in both of those categories. Once their appeal rights are exhausted, they may need professional legal advice to help them pursue their case. There are families who go through the family returns process whose removal is not pursued because they are found to have a right to be there, so we need to remember that we do not always make the right decision first time.
Mike Kaye: The experience of other countries uniformly shows that you want a system that gets the decision right first time and has very little backlog, because that discourages unmeritorious claims. It also, conversely, ensures that you do not have backlogs where it becomes more difficult and, indeed, less reasonable to try to remove people, because the longer they are in the process, they more chance that they will have family obligations here; they have restarted their lives and they may actually have lived the majority of their lives here. If you want a system that works properly, it needs to be resourced to work quickly so that you get accurate and prompt decisions, and those decisions need to be implemented.
John Wilkes: The unintended consequence of backlogs is that when you get to address the backlog, what often happens is that the Home Office exercises its discretion and allows people to remain. The message that that sends to people further back in the system is that if you sit it out longer, you might get a better chance. We need to sort the system out to ensure that decisions are made right first time.
Good morning. I have heard what you have said in answer to the questions about what is proposed in the Bill. You have given your objections to what is in the Bill, so can I ask you what you think is the way forward to effect behavioural change? What is your answer to it?
Mike Kaye: My answer—I have referred to this before—is that you need to resource the system properly so that you get quick, accurate decisions and you enforce them. That is not about spending more money, because it is a spend-to-save policy. With each caseworker you employed, you would actually save money from resolving asylum cases earlier in the process. Once you reduce backlogs, you reduce incentives for people to make unmeritorious claims. You also ensure that you do not get, as John was saying, people who have been in the system for a long time whom you can no longer remove because they get other obligations to stay in this country. That reduces cost and makes the system work better, and it gives it credibility.
Judith Dennis: It is important to understand that some cases are complex and some decisions will not be made right first time. You can do the majority right first time, but you need independent scrutiny and you need skilled caseworkers. There are some in the Home Office who are very good at picking up a case and seeing it through to its end, and that has not been incentivised in the past. Incentivising people to pick up a case and not to lose it until they have resolved it is needed. In addition, accept when somebody cannot be returned home, and give them leave.
I have two very quick questions. One is for Mr Wilkes, following on from my colleague’s question. Do you think there is a danger that the Bill might contravene the Children (Scotland) Act 1995?
John Wilkes: I do think there is a risk of that. That is why I believe the Committee needs to scrutinise these things, and similarly for the provisions of the Children Act in England and Wales. I believe that is why you need to have a consideration of legislative consent, to ensure that those submissions are made about the potential impacts of that.
Thank you. One explanation given for the failure of a 2005 pilot of terminating support was lack of faith in the asylum process. Is there any reason to believe that people have any more faith in that process now?
Judith Dennis: Among those people whose cases are dealt with by experienced and skilled caseworkers, probably. I was very impressed during a visit to one office where a family had a range of complex reasons for being here, including some of those alluded to earlier, and the caseworker took time to understand the complex problems and tried to resolve each one. We can have faith in those people. Unfortunately, it is not really an incentivised skill.
Order. I am afraid the time has beaten us and I must bring this session to an end. I thank the witnesses so much for coming. You can see the interest of Members and I am sure we could have gone on for longer, but thank you for coming.