On a day like this, I really do regret giving up coffee. I remind Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and of my support for the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project.
I had not planned to speak but I was very disappointed with the first set of answers I received. The only reason our debating time is limited is that the Government set an artificial timeframe for a very controversial piece of legislation. Yesterday morning I visited an asylum hostel set up in Southwark without giving prior notice to the council or to local organisations that would be willing, and have the network, to support asylum seekers. In the course of my discussion with asylum seekers in my constituency, I asked what specific support they had received in making their applications. They said, “Nothing apart from an interpreter.” When I asked if they had been given access to legal aid, they said they did not know what it was. The Home Office officials and the charity present said that legal aid information had been included in their induction materials, which are in several languages, but nobody had bothered to explain to them in their first language what legal aid meant, and no one had pointed out how someone could get access to legal aid in Southwark. Members should bear in mind that some of them were being told, especially when they first arrived, that they should not leave the premises. Access is a crucial point.
If the Home Office actually bothered to get out of bed and talk to local authorities before making such impositions on local communities, it would find that there is a willingness to better co-ordinate support and to help. There are some brilliant organisations, such as the Southwark Law Centre and the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, which are there, willing and able to support those asylum seekers—if the Home Office just bothered to communicate. Instead, we have a more expensive system, with duplication and the Home Office imposing new contracts, commissioning new services and ignoring networks and systems that are already there, at substantial cost to the taxpayer—something that the Government seem to ignore. That is the context of clause 16: people do not have access to sufficient support to make the best application possible at the first point.
I want to speak explicitly about children today, because the Children’s Society has suggested that clause 16 will disproportionately affect children and young people, who are often unable to disclose evidence because of trauma and abuse or because they have not received adequate and child-appropriate legal representation. It believes that to subject asylum-seeking children and young people to clause 16 would be an outright disregard of the Home Office’s guidance and its obligations to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, as outlined in the UN convention on the rights of the child. The question for the Minister, which I hope he will return to, is how does the Home Office ensure that there is support to complete applications, given that direct, real-life example I gave, both for adults—I was talking to men yesterday—and for children, for the purposes of this contribution?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central pointed out, the Government’s equality impact assessment of its new immigration plan explicitly sets out that vulnerable people, including children,
“might find it more difficult than others: to disclose what has happened to them; to participate in proceedings; and to understand the consequences of non-compliance with legal requirements.”
Even the Home Office’s own documents suggest an understanding of UK law that may not be there—in fact, it is very unlikely to be there—for asylum seekers in the UK and especially for children and anyone who has gone through trauma. Hon. Members have already referenced the sexual violence that many may have experienced on their journeys to the UK.
The Home Office bears a duty to promote and protect the welfare of children, as set out in section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, but in the year ending March 2020, there were 5,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who were looked after, and such children arrived in this country alone, scared and in need of protection and support. Clause 16 would make it significantly harder for those children to build a happy and stable life in the UK, where they can be safe and have opportunities.
I do not pretend to be an individual expert on this, and we have all had access to the same information from the Children’s Society, which is sending its excellent briefings through. It has supported many asylum-seeking children and young people through the appeals process and has had to present new claims or evidence in later proceedings. That is the reality of the asylum process that the Government are seeking to impose: new demands, new complexity and new punishments for those who fail to meet higher standards.
The Children’s Society says that these young people and children are unlikely to set out the breadth of their claims and evidence in the first instance. That is due not to the weakness in any claim, but to the impact of the journeys they have endured and the consequent trauma they have faced, as well as being the direct result of poor initial legal representation—or none, as with the cases I mentioned yesterday, which real people out there have experienced.
We have just had some disappointing answers. The idea that even adults, never mind children, understand the need to point out religious or sexuality-based discrimination that they have experienced on the way, is frankly ludicrous and would be another example of—we talked about this in Committee last week—where the Home Office can be shown to be failing in its duty to consider the best interests of children, which means we will not end up with legislation that goes through, that no one comes back to and that is implemented effectively. We will see further legal action and millions more pounds of taxpayers’ money poured down the drain because the Government would prefer to have a culture war than build a fair, effective and fast system to deliver asylum decisions.
I am sure the Minister is an expert in medical conditions, but post-traumatic stress disorder does not always appear immediately after a traumatic incident or event. This legislation requires PTSD to occur immediately. It seeks to change the nature of a medical condition that most medical professionals, who I would argue know a little bit more about it than any member of this Committee, suggest usually takes between three to six months to appear, and before it has the most traumatic impact in an individual’s life. The suggestion that the UK, just one country on the planet, should legislate to require that to happen, and in relation to a medical condition that does not present itself immediately, is absurd. Frankly, I find it bizarre.
Preventing asylum-seeking children and young people from substantiating their claims and adding to their evidence at a later stage disregards the hugely traumatic experiences and trauma that they have been through. Instead of making the system fairer, it will penalise the most vulnerable groups, including children, who struggle to disclose information up front, as we know from the previous evidence base. It will lead to more unfair and more incorrect decisions, more bureaucracy, more appeals and more costs to the taxpayer, the Home Office and the justice system. Of course, it also fails the best-interests test, and I would suggest that it fails the Equality Act 2010, the Human Rights Act 1998 and international law.