Consequential etc provision

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration 4:00 pm, 26th February 2019

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I was about to move on to the consideration of best interests in primary legislation. I hope it will be self-explanatory.

The placing in primary legislation of detailed requirements about how to consider the best interests of children may not serve the interests of all children. For some, being reunited with family overseas as quickly as possible is an important outcome. In other cases, these requirements will replicate work already being done by a local authority through its children’s services. There is, therefore, a risk that some individual children’s needs will not be well served by including well-intentioned provisions in primary legislation and making them mandatory in every case.

The Home Office’s published guidance on cases involving children required to leave the UK with their parents requires consideration of the following: is it reasonable to expect the child to live in another country? What is the level of the child’s integration with the UK? How long has the child been away from the parents’ country? Where and with whom will the child live if compelled to live overseas? What will the arrangements be for the child in that other country? What is the strength of the child’s relationship with the parent or other family members, which would be severed if the child moved away or stayed in the UK?

The assessment of a child’s best interests in such cases requires consideration of all relevant factors, including whether the child’s parent or parents are expected to leave the UK, whether the child is expected to leave with them or remain without them, and the impact that would have on the child.

Factors to be considered include—but are not limited to—the child’s health, how long they have been in education and what stage they have reached, as well as issues relating to their parents. I therefore consider the current arrangements to provide a more robust safeguard than the assessments proposed by the amendment, which will in any case only apply to children of EEA or Swiss parents.

The proposed amendment would also require the Home Office to develop a care and reintegration plan for any child of an EEA or Swiss national before we could remove the child. However, it is the responsibility of the authorities and the state to which the child is being removed to implement such plans. We would not have the power to enforce them. The amendment would effectively create a new set of statutory duties for the immigration authorities that would be demanding on their time without leading to any clearly identifiable result or benefit for a child.

Other specific safeguards for children whose parents face removal from the UK already exist in immigration legislation. The Government introduced the family returns process to support the removal of families with minor dependent children. That process includes a comprehensive and ongoing written welfare assessment in all cases. Discussion with social services takes place to identify particular concerns and risks, and medical information is sought with the agreement of the individuals. A plan for an ensured return of the family must demonstrate how we have met our duty under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act. The proposed amendment is therefore not necessary.

Amendment 25 would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child when exercising the power in clause 4 in relation to children and families. It would also require the Government to publish a child rights impact assessment when clause 4 is used in relation to children and families. The Government take children’s welfare extremely seriously. As hon. Members will be aware, the UK is a signatory to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, and we take those obligations seriously.

Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act requires the Home Office to carry out its functions in a way that takes into account the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the UK. We also have a proud history of providing protection to those in need, including some of the most vulnerable children. For example, we are providing grant funding of up to £9 million for voluntary and community organisations across the UK to support EU nationals who might need additional help when applying for immigration status through the EU settlement scheme. Last week I met a group of organisations working with and representing vulnerable individuals. I was forced to send a note asking whether the Children’s Society had attended the event; it was in fact Children England, although it echoed the comments made by the Children’s Society in evidence to this Committee two weeks ago.

The grant funding we are providing to organisations to inform vulnerable individuals, as well as children and families, about the need to apply for status, and to support them to complete their applications under the scheme, is an important part of the Home Office’s support. As Committee members heard during the oral evidence sessions, voluntary and community organisations have been well engaged in the development of the settlement scheme and their engagement is ongoing.

In exercising all delegated powers, the Government must and do comply with their international legal obligations, including the UN convention on the rights of the child. We do not think it is necessary to reiterate the commitments in individual cases across the statute book, particularly in the light of section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act. Similarly, the Government’s view is that it would be disproportionate to require the publication of a separate child impact assessment. Age is one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and as such the Secretary of State is already required to, and does, consider the impacts that regulations would have on children by virtue of the public sector equality duty.

Amendment 24, which seeks to amend the Bill’s commencement provisions in clause 7, would make commencement dependent on the Government publishing a child rights impact assessment. As I have outlined, the duty set out in section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act applies to all functions of the Home Office in the area of immigration, asylum and nationality. Furthermore, clause 3 states that the Bill will be added to the statutory definition of the term, “the Immigration Acts”. To clarify, everything done by and under those Acts must meet that obligation.

Furthermore, we are working to ensure that local authorities have all the support they need to ensure that looked-after children in their care will be able to receive leave to remain under the EU settlement scheme. The Bill’s core focus is to end free movement. The design of the future borders and immigration system will be developed consistently with our international domestic obligations to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. For that reason, as set out in our published policy equality statement on the Bill’s immigration measures, we have committed to carefully considering all equalities issues, including the impact on children, as the policies are developed.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston asked a number of questions about the processes that the Home Office follows to ensure it considers the best interests of the child. As I have outlined, the Home Office has extensive guidance for caseworkers and officials explaining the requirements of section 55 of the 2009 Act, which must always be followed to ensure compliance with the duty. Thus the Home Office always considers the best interests of the child as the primary, but not necessarily the sole, consideration in immigration, asylum and nationality cases.

The hon. Lady asked what would happen to the children of EU resident citizens who do not register themselves for the EU settlement scheme. We have been clear that if a child has not applied before the deadline because their parent has not done so, that would clearly constitute a reasonable ground for missing the deadline and we would work closely with the children and their parent to make an application as soon as possible. She also asked a specific question about numbers. Unfortunately, I do not have the statistics with me but I am happy to write to her and all members of the Committee to provide that information.

The Bill’s social security co-ordination clause is an enabling power, allowing changes to be made to the retained social security co-ordination regime via secondary legislation. A policy equality statement on the co-ordination, which was published alongside the Bill, gave a commitment that equality considerations, including the public sector equality duty, are being considered more widely throughout the policy development and that any policy changes that may be considered under secondary legislation will result in an updated equalities analysis. We will certainly consider the impact of any future changes to the retained co-ordination regime, in line with the public sector equality duty. I therefore urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.