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Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that a really good parent who had escaped terrible persecution in their country of origin would be quite likely to prefer to leave their children in care than have to take them back to the country where they knew that they would seriously damaged?
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): I applaud the Minister's natural sense of how she would behave in a situation, but would not a logical conclusion of that be that every child who arrives here as an unaccompanied minor seeking refuge is an orphan? I know that many of them are, but not all of them are.
I should like an assurance from the Minister that, at the point at which the decision is taken to withdraw benefit, someone will ensure that a meeting takes place with the local social services department to explain the consequences of losing the benefit and what will happen next. If the benefit is simply withdrawn, and the other agencies are not informed, over a period of months some form of hardship could develop of which none of the other agencies would be aware. Whatever our views about the clause, we would not want such a situation to emerge. It is important that individual authorities should be notified.
For tackling the problem of removals, Liberal Democrats do not support the idea of an island; rather, there should be a greater use of existing powers. The situation has been allowed to go on for far too long, and the long delays make an eventual removal harder. I, and the Home Affairs Committee, have had examples of individuals who had reached their final stage, but five years on nothing had happened. By that point, individuals have become embedded in the community and it is difficult to remove them, so there needs to be much more effective use of existing powers. I accept the Home Secretary's argument that one barrier to removal is re-documentation, but I thought that clause 14 tackled that; so if that is effective, we do not need powers to withdraw benefit, nor the threat to take children into care.
Initially, I had some sympathy with the view that we should take a tough stance on individuals who have clearly destroyed their documents. It is important that those who give genuine asylum seekers a bad name should be highlighted in the way proposed. I understand the Government's desire to send a strong message to the organisers of gangs who encourage individuals to do that. However, these clauses will need very careful examination if we are to ensure that genuine cases are not criminalised. At the moment, the onus is on an individual who arrives without documentation to make the case for why they have not got it. That is the wrong way round. I believe in the assumption of innocence, which means that we should assume that they have a genuine reason for not having it.
Because a punishment will be attached to the non-possession of documents, the Crown Prosecution Service is being drawn into the process. That gives rise to the danger of a twin-track process whereby somebody who arrives here without documentation is subject both to the normal immigration process assessing their case and to a CPS process leading towards possible conviction. Since the two processes will presumably consider the same information, it would be unnecessarily complicated for an individual to have to steer their way through that twin-track process. Furthermore, the situation could arise whereby although it had been decided that they were genuine and could be allowed into this country, the CPS had to continue to pursue the issue of their not having documentation. It would be crazy to have the two processes running at the same time. Will the Minister clarify that?
Does the Minister accept that there are many genuine reasons why individuals might come into this country without documentation? In some countries, such as the Republic of the Congo and Somalia, it is difficult to obtain such documentation in the first place. Alternatively, if someone is fleeing a country because something has suddenly flared up, the last thing on their mind will be to go back home to try to get their passportindeed, their house may have been burned down, so trying to get that documentation could prove very difficult.
Jeremy Corbyn: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Geneva convention requires signatory states not to discriminate against individuals because of their lack of documentation or the method by which they arrive?
Another of my concerns about arrival without documentation relates to the message that the Government want to send back to the gangmasters and traffickers. I can understand their desire to send that message, but I have not yet heard them explain how it will physically be achieved. Those individuals would need to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of UK asylum law in order to interpret what the Government are planning. Let us also remember that traffickers often place the people they want to come into this country in considerable danger or make threats against their families. That pressure may mean that it would be reasonable for them to argue that they had come into this country without documentation because they were told to destroy it by a gang leader.
We will need to examine these clauses carefully to ensure that nobody who comes here without documentation for genuine reasons ends up in prison. I would also say to the Home Secretary that adding another category of individuals to those who are imprisoned is, first, unacceptable given the number of people who are already in prison and, secondly, unrealistic in financial terms, because the costs involved in keeping somebody in prison would wipe out some of the potential savings. We are in danger of criminalising innocent individuals instead of finding a way of punishing the gangmasters and traffickers who have brought them into this country.
The Leader of the Opposition made a great cause of the issue of children and said that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister should be ashamed. In this sense, he is right: the Government should be ashamed that they have put themselves in a position whereby they can take such strong criticism from a former right-wing Home Secretary. On the grounds of natural justice, on the way in which children are being used as a political tool, and on the principle of this country remaining a safe haven, Liberal Democrats will vote for the amendment and against the Bill.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): The Select Committee on Home Affairs reported yesterday, and I hope that the report will be of value to the House in the debate today and also in scrutiny in Committee. I should particularly like to thank the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who, as part of the asylum applications inquiry, has appeared before the Committee on some six occasions in the last calendar year. I wish all Ministers were so happy to give evidence. We shall be publishing a fuller report on the asylum process in the new year, but we picked out for the current report the elements that applied to the Bill.
Asylum is clearly a major issue for many of our constituents. There is real concern about abuse of the system and about the impact on many areas of the country of significant numbers of new people moving into settled communities. I think the case for being seen to take strong measures to tackle flaws in the asylum system is sound, and the recent figures suggest that the Government have had considerable success in doing that.
I want to start with two general comments. First, we need to ensure that the public are kept properly informed about the issues. The Minister was very helpful in trying to inform the Select Committee about the overall costs of supporting families in the asylum system, but it was very unfortunate that that was done in a way that enabled the cost to be represented as a much higher income than some of our constituents enjoy, when the reality is that, on a like-for-like basis, asylum-seeking families have a standard of living that is significantly below the income support levels available to British families. It does no good for any of us if the problem is overstated in the public mindit creates a rod for all our backs if people get the wrong impression.
Secondly, we must recognise that failed asylum-seeking families are human beings. Of course, there are people who try the asylum system who are of outright criminal intent, and certainly there are many who wish to use the flaws in the system to remain here as long as possible, to exploit the ability to work illegally and so on. But the truth is that most are people who, although they have no valid claim to be refugees, have set out and risked a lot in the hope of a better life for themselves and their families. When the decision comes that the answer is no, they still deserve to be treated humanely by the system, and we need to bear that in mind in talking about these proposals.
The Select Committee considered the proposals but not the Bill; we did not have time to do that. I have to say that there was too little information available at the consultation stage for the Committee or many of the respondents to respond in detail to the proposals that are now being discussed. Particularly in relation to clause 10, which will clearly be controversial, it would have been better if the full shape of the Government's proposals had formed part of the consultation document. Difficulties will arise in another place, if not here, and it would have been better to work through the issues.
The Committee's overall assessment of the Bill is that its basic principles are right, but its implementation will be critical. There is clearly a significant problem with undocumented passengers, both in returning those who have no case for asylum to their countries and in tackling people traffickers. The Committee supported the general proposals to tackle those who deliberately destroy documents or fail to co-operate with redocumentation.
However, we must ensure that there is real protection for those who are genuinely fleeing persecution. Most people who enter the country, particularly on airlines, depend on people-traffickers; they get their information from people-traffickers. If people are to be aware of the consequences of destroying documents, we need to ensure that they understand the position fully. There must be improved information to passengers.
When the Minister came before the Committee, she told us that it was not the intention to use the provision against those who have no option but to travel on false documents because they come from countries where they cannot approach the embassy to ask for a visa, or even get a passport in the first place. We welcome that assurance, but I believe that it should be explicit and included in the Bill. That would provide a valuable protection.