Clause 22 - Civil legal services for recipients of priority removal notices

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 26th October 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Clause 22 provides for legally aided advice to be available to all individuals who have received a priority removal notice. The priority removal notice is designed to give advance notice to individuals who are being prioritised for removal from the UK, and requires them to raise any reasons why they should not be removed. It is essential that individuals have access to free and impartial legal advice upon receipt of a priority removal notice. Those individuals need to understand what the notice is and what it is asking them to do, and they need the opportunity to go through their individual circumstances with a qualified lawyer and confirm whether there are any reasons why they should not be removed from the UK, and how to raise those reasons. Access to this legal advice will be free to the individual, with the only criterion for the advice being receipt of the priority removal notice.

We hope that the clause will encourage all individuals with a priority removal notice to seek legal advice and ensure that the Home Office is aware of the individual’s full circumstances before any removal action is taken. The clause will work to the benefit of all parties involved, from the individuals in need of advice, who can access free and impartial advice, to the Home Office, which will continue to fulfil its duties to protect those in need of its protection and remove those who have no valid reasons to remain in the UK. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:00 pm, 26th October 2021

Clause 22 provides for up to—but no more than—seven hours of legal aid to be available to those served with a priority removal notice, enabling them to receive advice on their immigration status and removal. This provision is necessary due to the new priority removal notices regime introduced in part 2 of the Bill, and while we welcome the introduction of the legal aid requirement in the Bill, it does not go far enough. Seven hours is not enough time for a legal representative to take instructions from, advise and represent individuals who are often among the most vulnerable people in society.

The Government’s one-stop approach to asylum claims means that there is a significant risk of claimants being unable to obtain legal advice properly despite the provisions set out in the clause, because they have not been given enough time to develop a relationship of trust with their legal advisers and the legal authorities. We know about the difficulties many asylum seekers—for example, those who are victims of torture, sexual gender-based violence, or trafficking—face in disclosing evidence, and the time constraints imposed by clause 22 will likely negatively impact people who have difficulty disclosing information related to their claim due to an initial lack of trust in the advisers or authorities.

More widely, organisations in the sector have rightly made the connection between the Government’s offer of legal aid to the recipients of PRNs in this clause and the broader cuts to legal aid in the immigration sector that have become the hallmark of the Government’s time in office. According to Bail for Immigration Detainees,

“This meagre provision comes after the gradual decimation of the legal aid immigration sector since the legal aid cuts in 2013”,

and the clause

“will not be a sufficient safeguard to ensure access to justice”.

It is, of course, essential that people who need legal advice can access that advice in practice, and support must be provided for those who need help navigating the system. In many instances, asylum seekers are highly vulnerable, and may experience difficulties when it comes to the legal intricacies of the asylum process, such as studying legal determinations or preparing submissions for appeals. It is equally clear that the wider proposals in part 2 of the Bill will not achieve the Home Office’s aim of creating an immigration system that is fairer and more efficient. As we know from reading the Bill, clause 22 comes alongside a set of sweeping legislative changes that, for example, limit access to appeals, speed up the removal process and penalise late submissions of relevant evidence. These measures can hardly be described as fair, and they fail to make the system more efficient.

We must take the proposals about legal aid in clause 22 in conjunction with other clauses in part 2 that seek to fast-track asylum claims and appeals, and make conditions harder for asylum seekers and refugees here in the UK. When implemented together and in strict draconian fashion, the Bill’s provisions therefore inhibit access to justice, risk inherent unfairness, are contrary to the common law and violate procedural requirements. Most importantly, they may give rise to a significant risk of refoulement, which would violate the UK’s internal obligations.

While we welcome the introduction of legal aid, we do not believe that the clause goes far enough: we believe that much more should be done to provide more legal aid, particularly in relation to the immigration sector.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Members will be pleased to know that I will be brief, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has been so comprehensive, but also because I spoke on this issue a lot this morning. However, I would like to ask some specific questions—three, I think.

If children are covered by clause 22, perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity—despite failing to do so on the two previous chances I have provided—to outline what the equality impact assessment means when it says,

“We will also provide increased access to legal aid.”

As I have explained, the Ministry of Justice seems to be unaware of this extension, and there are previous answers I have yet to exploit. However, it would be useful to know—indeed, I believe we are entitled to know—what cost to Government this will have. What is the cost of this extension to the taxpayer? Is it relevant to clause 22, and how many children or people will benefit from such an extension as we go forward? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that or, at least, send another letter. I am enjoying our correspondence so far.

My second question is about the organisations that might be providing this advice. Is it the Government’s intention, under clause 22, to have a defined list of organisations that will be willing to provide it? As I mentioned, at an asylum hostel in my constituency yesterday, there appeared to be a Home Office list of legal aid providers that is given to asylum seekers in an induction pack. That should be made public, so that we can explore whether those are the best organisations and whether the list could be expanded. I hope the Minister will tell us whether that list will be published, and whether clause 22 will involve a defined set of organisations.

Thirdly, if the Government are serious about genuinely tackling the delays and the pace of these cases, perhaps they would consider expanding legal aid to all cases to make it a genuinely fast, fair and effective system. That is sadly not what we have before us today.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

Similarly, I want to ask a couple of questions of the Minister on why the opportunity has not been taken to go beyond the provisions in the clause, because there is a real problem with access to legal aid. Research by Refugee Action has shown that, since the changes introduced in 2012, it has been much more difficult to secure legal aid. There is also a vast difference in provision across the country, with provision concentrated in metropolitan areas such as London and Birmingham, and not in dispersal areas, where it is particularly difficult to access legal aid. Refugee Action’s report recommended that the Government should commit to ensuring that everybody in the asylum system who is eligible for legal aid representation has access to it. What are the Government proposing in respect of that?

If the clause is about ensuring that issues are resolved at the appropriate stage, why are the Government not extending legal aid to all stages of the process? If cases are successfully resolved at an earlier stage, surely it is to everybody’s benefit.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I will try to respond to the various points that have been raised as best as I am able. I will, of course, happily feed through the views that have been expressed to Ministry of Justice colleagues who have direct responsibility for legal aid within their portfolio.

On the initial point about the seven hours, it is worth saying that the power we are proposing will allow the Lord Chancellor to amend the number of hours of advice available under the clause. The Lord Chancellor will have to lay affirmative legislation to ensure that Members of this House and the other place have full sight of the proposed changes. That power is necessary because the priority removal notice is a new process and, as with all new operational processes, it will take time to bed in. We must be able to change the number of hours to ensure that the purpose of the clause works how we intend in practice. Providing individuals with access to free legal advice ahead of their potential removal from the UK is clearly important. That is why we are making that commitment in the Bill.

I was asked what this extension of legal aid will cost. The estimates are in the region of £4 million to £6 million, so it is a significant increase to meet the need resulting from the new measures we are introducing. If, at the end of the seven hours, more advice is needed—and there are circumstances which dictate that—there is legal advice available for asylum claims and appeals.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Is that £4 million to £6 million just for the civil legal services under clause 22 for people under priority removal notices?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Yes. That provision is made precisely for those in receipt of a PRN. I was making a point about the extension. It is worth making the point that, if people find that they require further advice at the end of the seven hours, any individual needing more legal advice on an immigration matter can apply for in-scope legal aid, such as for asylum advice or through the exceptional case funding scheme, subject to passing the relevant means and merits tests. I will make sure that colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are aware of the points raised today on legal aid more generally within the immigration and asylum system.

There was a question about access to justice in dispersal areas. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark asked where information about legal aid provision is provided. My understanding is that it is published online, so it is readily accessible to people. As hon. Members would expect on the issue of dispersal areas, the MOJ monitors the market capacity and works with the Home Office to ensure supply in dispersal areas. If the hon. Member for Sheffield Central wants to write to me with specific concerns on that matter in his community, I would be glad to look at those and make sure that they are considered by Ministers appropriately.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I will take the Minister up on his offer, but I want to press him on another point. He talks about legal aid being made available for the new provision for a priority removal notice. However, the Home Secretary has the opportunity to issue a priority removal notice, but is not required to do so—it might not be done in all cases. There will potentially be people who are served with a notice of removal who have never received a priority removal notice. They will not have the opportunity to access the seven hours of free legal aid. What is the justification for that?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

The hon. Member is seeking to extend the provision we are proposing in the Bill. We are very clear that the clause makes the legal advice available to those who have been served with priority removal notices. We do not propose to extend the offer beyond that. However, I will make sure that his concerns are flagged with ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.