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Mr. Dawson: I accept my right hon. Friend's comments, but does he agree that much of the welfare state's work is protecting children from the consequences of their parents' actions, and that, by and large, that should be done by keeping families together?
Mr. Blunkett: As someone who was a chairman of social services for four years and dealt with difficult issues, such as removing children from their families, I accept my hon. Friend's point. I accept that we should take every possible step to ensure that children are well cared for, supported and maintained in their family unless they are at risk. As we have seen cases from Maria Caldwell all the way through to Victoria Climbié, our only objective is to protect children's interests when the decisions of adults whose care they have been inparents or otherwisehave led to their being at risk. When they are at risk, we intervene to care for them.
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Will the Home Secretary give an absolute commitment that social services will be informed at the point at which a decision is taken to withdraw benefit from a family with children, so that social services are not brought in too late?
Mr. Blunkett: The obligation on the family is, first, to accept the removal directions and to be removedwe shall be tracking these familiesand secondly, if they are in distress, to indicate that that is the case so that we can take the appropriate steps, including, as a logical conclusion of destitution, although not as part of the Bill, supporting the tiny number of children whose parents have taken such a contrary decision that it has put those children at risk. That is the normal practice. We are not in the business of trying to engineer a situation in which children are at risk and destitute and have to be taken into care. That is neither the role of the
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The whole House will agree with the Home Secretary that the actions of adults have consequences. However, the question at issue in relation to clause 7 is whether those actions should have consequences that are visited on the heads of children.
Mr. Blunkett: In every circumstance in which parents make decisions and are held responsiblewhether it is parents who engage in unlawful action, parents who neglect or abuse their children, or parents who are no longer in receipt of benefits as a result of their actionswe have to take steps. In the domestic situationand I am familiar with the legislationsection 1 of the Children Act 1989 enables social services, in extremis, to intervene financially. What we are saying is that we are prepared to intervene financially: we are prepared to pay the fare and provide support to those being returned to their country of origin. [Interruption.] That pager might have been providing an answer that I needed to give to the House. I thought I had better pause for a moment in case it was something vital. What we are not prepared to do is to get ourselves into the situation in which parents, having gone through all the processes that I have described, know that we will not withdraw public support from them because they have a child. In those circumstances, what chance would we have of getting the growing number of people being advised not to co-operate with re-documentation and removal to leave? That is the simple public question: what do we do, and what do people expect?
Our actions have consequences, as do the decisions of parents. Through our actions, we have identified a massive and growing problem: 70 per cent. of those claiming asylum do not have documents, and many are not co-operating with re-documentation. They are being advised by those who should know better to "play the game". So what do we do? Do we simply say, "If you are a family, when you touch British soil, you are here for ever"? We cannot do that and have a credible system.
Let us bear in mind the fact that, when one hon. Member said earlier that the real issue was removals, there was an enormous number of "Hear, hears" around the Chamber. I can say, "Hear, hear," to the removal of those who have no legal right to be in the country, but not to taking away any steps that we put forward to make that a reality. It is the challenge of a legislature to make decisions, to ask the Executive to implement policies that are both credible and administratively possible, and to back them in taking those difficult decisions forward. When we were debating the previous legislation, I saidthis is in Hansardthat I believed
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that the Home Affairs Committee and I support the principle behind clause 7, as I hope to explain later. I welcome the fact that, earlier this afternoon, he said that he was looking again at the way in which section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 is being applied, perhaps because some of the consequences had been harsher than the House or he intended. Does he take from that the fact that the House must look very carefully at how the Government would implement clause 7 in practice, to ensure that it achieves the outcomes that he wants, rather than resulting in consequences that we would find unacceptable?
Mr. Blunkett: I accept that stricture from my right hon. Friend. I am pleased that his Committee is not recommending that clause 7 be removed from the Bill. I accept that, as with so much legislation, it is crucial that the Executive are properly scrutinised and that the Houseincluding the Home Affairs Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairsdoes that job. That is part of Parliament's democratic role, and it is a very important one. If we can be shown to be in the wrong in terms of the way in which we apply legislation administratively, or to be too harsh or too soft, the House should hold us to account. While I cannot engage in a subjective judgment, as requested by the Select Committee, in terms of predictions of numbers, I can assure its Chairman that we will present all the facts to it and keep it informed on how we are implementing this legislation.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am sure that many of us sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman in terms of the very difficult decisions that he is trying to balance in the Bill. He referred to people who ought to know better giving poor advice, and to people making a monkey of the legislation. Does he haveor will he takethe power to withdraw legal aid contracts from firms of solicitors that consistently give poor advice, propose failed appeals and bring forward failing arguments?
Mr. Blunkett: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs is to implement a review of the legal aid system, which will apply from April, and, with the Legal Services Commission, a new accreditation system for those providing advicenot to withdraw the accreditation but to ensure that there is proper monitoring. We are also strengthening the powers of the commissioner in the Bill so that he can achieve what the hon. Gentleman is seeking, in the interests of good advice and public probity and of ensuring that the very large tranches of public money that are going into the system are used wisely.
Mr. Blunkett: There might be family friends and members of the community who are able to assist. Let us bear in mind that 30,000 people in London receive benefit only, and not accommodation, and therefore are presumed to be accommodated by the host community or by family and relatives in this country.That is an interesting point in itself. We were enjoined not to withdraw benefit only when we introduced the measure in the 2002 Act, and we have not done so, because we have listened to the requests of hon. Members not to do that.
Those in a responsible position should give advice and support to families to encourage them to take up the offer of voluntary as opposed to enforced removal. Other measures in the Bill will assist us with enforced removal. With the fast-track process and better notification of the removal directions when the final appeal is turned down, we should be able to achieve a more streamlined system.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I want to return to the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). The Home Secretary is asking us to accept that very few children will be taken into care or be made destitute as a result of clause 7, but large numbers of people could be affected. It is a question of how the provision will be implemented. Some of us have studied section 55 of the 2002 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) asked for an assurance that that would not be used against people who have been in the country for only a short timea matter of days. However, as we have just been told, the practice was 24 hours. I have a letter issued two months ago to someone who was denied support and had been in the country for one hour. How are we expected to accept assurances when that is our experience of what has happened under section 55?