My hon. Friend spoke about Angola. I am chair of the all-party group on Angola, and last year I visited it with an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation. What he says about the breakdown of civil society is correct. The problem is that, for whatever reasons, Angola has been through 30 years of the most appalling war, and there are an enormous number of orphan children. It is wrong to deport children back to that situation when there is no adequate follow-up, and no means by which the British embassy could find out what was happening to those children, even if it wanted to. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to that important point.
I represent an inner-London constituency with a large number of asylum seekers—a place from which many people from all parts of the world have traditionally sought asylum over decades, stretching back for most of the last century. People have traditionally sought asylum from inner-London areas. Indeed, many later leaders of African countries have lived in that part of London.
My constituency asylum and immigration case load, like that of my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and a number of other Members, is enormous. One is faced with families who have sought asylum in this country and have been here for a considerable time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South correctly said, the children have grown up in this society and know nothing other than the multicultural society of inner London. For them suddenly to be told that they have got to go, and to be taken almost forcibly away and deported to a society that they have only heard about from their parents, is cruel in the extreme, heartless and damaging—and they are then often placed in enormous danger. What kind of message does it send to other children in their school about justice, and about the society in which they are growing up, if it appears that such arbitrary justice can take place?
Although people who flee from places of danger and seek a place of safety in our country using the Geneva convention do so primarily for their own security, we should also remember that they are enormous contributors to our country. Asylum seekers want to work if they can, and those of them who have gained the right to work tend to work extremely hard and make an enormous contribution. We should be positive about that, as well as just saying that they are—understandably—seeking a place of safety.
I could cite many quotes from many bodies, but I shall refer to one organisation in particular. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture is a long-standing organisation whose offices are in my constituency. It was set up to help victims of the Nazi system's brutality to the Jewish people in the 1930s and 1940s, and it has now developed into a highly respected and effective organisation that provides support, care and counselling for the victims of torture. I am very pleased that its new building and counselling centre are in my constituency; I am proud that it is located there, and of the work that it does.
That organisation has put a number of points to me. It says:
"It is the Medical Foundation's position that all decisions ultimately to remove must only take place after:— full and anxious scrutiny of the asylum and human rights grounds to remain in the UK by a properly trained and competent decision-maker only after access to an in-country right of appeal to an independent appellate court with the benefit of competent legal representation."
It also says:
"Proper preparation and presentation of a family's case, whether initially as an asylum claim or against removal on human rights grounds, must in our view include an understanding of the experiences of the children of the family. Too often the dependant child's experience is ignored or overlooked."
Asylum applications are often dealt with entirely on the merits of the case for one or other—or possibly both—of the parents to remain in the country, but any understanding of the children's emotional needs, desires and wishes is completely forgotten. Some such children grow up in a frightened atmosphere. We in this House have a fairly secure existence; we know where we live and what we do, and where we will be next week and next year. All that many children of asylum-seeking families in this country hear their parents talking about is whether the Home Office will ever reply to their letter, whether they will be secure in this country, or whether their children will still be in school next month or next year. That has a debilitating effect on such children's lives; it is damaging to them.
Something should be done about the speed and competence with which the Home Office deals with issues. I hold enormous advice bureau sessions, and I have lost count of the number of people who come along and ask, "When is the Home Office ever going to reply to any letter that has been sent by anybody?" A joke goes around about the letter that states that there will be a reply within 13 weeks: is that within 13 weeks this year, next year or the year after that? Such uncertainty has a grave effect on people. I look forward to the Minister assuring me that things are improving in that respect.
The UK Government placed reservations on the UN convention on the rights of the child. I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether those reservations will be withdrawn. The British Government are, understandably, determined to improve human rights around the world, and it is not good for them to keep a reservation in place in respect of that convention.
My hon. Friend's debate is labelled as being about children, but I am not sure how one defines children. I suppose that the legal definition is people up to the age of 18. However, there is a serious problem to do with older children, such as young people in their late teens, or even in their early 20s—almost adult children who, when their families are removed, may be able to stay. That too has a debilitating effect on them. I have watched the effects of family break-up in the Somali community and in others, when parents have been removed and older children have been left behind. That situation must be analysed as well, because it represents a serious problem in several cases and in several places.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Children's Commissioner's statement, and it is important to quote from it. The commissioner calls on the Government
"to make sure that asylum-seeking children and young people are treated as children by those involved at every stage of the asylum process".
The statement goes on to raise specific concerns about
"the fairness of the asylum determination process, particularly in respect of unaccompanied children", about detention, and about the way in which unannounced raids and other activities have taken place. I hope that when the Minister replies, he can provide us with some hope and reassurance about those matters.
There are many disturbing stories in the papers about the fast-tracking of asylum decisions. I have complained about the delays in responding to inquiries and dealing with ongoing cases. I do that because I want the system to be seen to be working fairly and efficiently. At present, I do not think that it is. However, to try to get round the problem by suddenly introducing a fast-track system might create more injustices and dangers.
"The casework system is good in principle, but justice and speed can pull in opposite directions. To work properly, the new asylum model will need well-trained staff, legal advice on the spot and a more open mindset. Asylum seekers need to know what's happening to them and why."
Again, I look forward to hearing what the Minister says about that, because it appears that as many as one third of all asylum seekers could face detention under the fast-track procedure. That will undoubtedly have a serious effect on children.
I presume that Barnardo's has sent many Members its report about the situation facing children. That report describes confusion and concern, and it is critical of how section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 operates. If we want people to live decently in our society, children to achieve well in school and their parents to contribute, why on earth do we operate section 9, which is designed to leave numbers of people in destitution? It cannot be good for anybody.
There is a big campaign concerning the Sukula family, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who live in Bolton. That is just one case in which a campaign is ongoing. Many other cases are ongoing at the same time on the same issue.