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6.17 pm

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD): My bedtime reading over recent weeks has been "Every Child Matters", which is a good White Paper that the Government published several months ago. But it would appear from the Bill's provisions and from what we have heard in the debate that every child matters except for the children of asylum seekers.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) organised a good meeting in the House last week during which we heard about conditions in detention centres. That was a bit of an eye opener for me, and given that detention centres are mentioned in the Bill, I thought I would use this opportunity to ask the Minister to address the problems. It is unclear why

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people—especially families with children—go into the detention centres and at what stage of the process that happens. The original intention for people to go into such centres as a result of a court order seems to be have been thrown out of the window, because that no longer happens. No one knows who decides the length of time for which people stay in the centres.

Inspections carried out by Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons show that people in the centres often have no privacy and that their rooms have no locks. They are not allowed access outside and their children receive no proper health care or education. Those facts are not rumour or anecdote: they come from an official inspection. At last week's meeting, it was questioned whether the Government are upholding the human rights of families and children who are in detention centres. The situation is serious and scandalous, so I hope that the Minister will address it in her response and tell us what the Government will do about it.

A lot has been said about clause 7. I merely repeat that families with children are usually the most genuine asylum seekers. Who would haul their children halfway across the world to a country where they know few people and do not speak the language, when they have no money and no means of finding work, if they were not in genuine fear of persecution? I cannot believe that people would do that.

On the other side of the coin, the Government say that people would rather leave this country and take their children with them than stay without benefits. If I were in their position, knowing the treatment I would get when I returned to my country of origin, I would probably prefer to leave my children in care and take the risk. At least I would know that they would be safe. Clause 7 is appalling.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that a good example of her point is offered by the "kinder transport" system that existed before the second world war, when families put their children on a train and never saw them again.

Dr. Tonge: Absolutely. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to the report from the British Association of Social Workers, which made that very point: we thought that sort of thing had stopped during and just before the second world war. We thought that we would no longer have to take children away from families who would never see them again. Are we really going to introduce that practice—however unintentionally—in the 21st century? I hope not.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a pertinent intervention to ask who assessed how safe it was for people to go back to their country of origin. On a similar point, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said that if people returned to their country of origin they would go with support. I shall tell the House briefly of one such experience.

A year ago I travelled to Kosovo with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) to visit a family who had recently returned there. The family had come to the UK at the height of the war in Kosovo and found refuge in Harrogate. While they waited for a decision about whether they could stay in

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Britain, they settled in the town; the man found a job as a waiter, his wife had a second baby and they were accepted by the community. They had a quality of life that they had never experienced before.

The final decision on their application was that they were refused asylum and told to get out. When all the due processes had been followed, all the charities and churches in the area, my hon. Friend and many others tried to stop the family's removal. That little family, with two small children—a toddler and a baby—were happily established, but they were taken from their house at a few minutes' notice, put on a plane and sent back to Kosovo. They were met, taken by car out into the countryside and dropped within a mile of their original village and given Euro10—only Euro10.

Is that the support to which the Minister referred? Is that how we treat people who have had among the worst experiences in the world? I hope that the Minister will tell me that such things will not happen again as a result of the Bill.

Worse was to come for that family. The man was persecuted by the Kosovo Liberation Army; he was seen as a collaborator because he had worked in a Serb factory and wanted to keep his job. He has not lived with his family since their return. The last we heard was that nobody knew where he was; he moves from safe house to safe house, trying to escape persecution. Is that the support that we give these unfortunate people? Why did the original process take so long, with the result that the family were settled before they had to be turned out of the country? As the hon. Member for Islington, North asked, who checks that the country of origin is safe? Who says that a person will be all right when they get back? Let us hope that more provision will be made in future for returnees than Euro10.

In just over a week's time we shall be celebrating the birth of a child to the most famous refugee family in history. I am appalled and ashamed of what the Government are doing in my name to some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

6.25 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I am concerned about clause 10, especially the loss of judicial review, but my greatest concern is clause 7, to which, given its potential impact on families and children, I shall address my remarks.

Ministers have said that they do not think that many, or any, children will be affected by the clause and end up going into care. However, if even one child is so affected, the Bill should not go ahead. The Government have not been able to give a figure for the number of children who could be affected. I tried to obtain the figure for Wales, which has far fewer asylum seekers than the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). The Cardiff and District asylum network estimates that 511 families are seeking asylum in Wales, and that 576 children could be affected by this legislation: 576 children are likely to end up in families who have been refused asylum and had their benefits removed.

Mr. McWalter : Does my hon. Friend accept that the standard way of dealing with the issue is forcible removal? That is made clear both in current legislation

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and in the Minister's remarks to the Select Committee. Under current arrangements, families would stay together, albeit that they would have a 5 am call by the police.

Julie Morgan: I cannot accept that treating asylum seekers' children differently from any other children can be acceptable.

There are already problems with failed asylum seekers who are destitute and are single. There are delays in arranging for failed asylum seekers to return to their countries of origin, as a result of which they are existing without support. There are those who are deemed unable to return to their countries because of circumstances in those countries: Zimbabwe and Somalia have been mentioned, for example.

In such circumstances, people can apply for hard case support, but that is not available in Wales. People can apply in Wales, but there is no accommodation to which they can go. I was told this morning of a stateless man in Cardiff who has been refused asylum. He has no money and has nowhere to return to. The situation will become more difficult when more families are put in the same position.

Organisations in Wales are already concerned about the numbers of those who will be made homeless after failed claims. I know that the figures are very small compared with those in constituencies elsewhere, but in Cardiff, 81 people have been recorded this year as being evicted from National Asylum Support Service accommodation and many more have been evicted from private accommodation. The proposed legislation is likely to make the situation worse.

There is already concern about illegal employment and about people being able to return to their own countries. Resources are also likely to be under much pressure. The Association of Directors of Social Services has already been mentioned today, and it has said that

There are fears that women will seek refuge in women's aid hostels, even if they are not fleeing domestic violence, because they do not have anywhere else to go. In Cardiff, the black women's refuge provided by BAWSO—the Black Association of Women Step Out—is already under strain providing two places for women and their families without any recourse to public funds. Other women's aid hostels in Wales do not give places to women in that position because they lose the rent for the rooms and have to pay for food and clothes for the destitute families. The trauma of having to move those women and families on is almost too difficult for them to cope with. BAWSO receives 99 per cent. of its funding from public bodies, but has to raise money for the two families in the refuge without recourse to public funds. There is a queue of women waiting to get into the hostel. BAWSO greatly fears that the legislation will drive many women to try to get into a hostel such as the one that it provides. As it has no recourse to public funds for such families, its position will become much more difficult.

The needs of children should always be put first. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), before I became an MP I was a social

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worker, and worked for the local authority and for Barnado's. We made every possible effort to prevent children from going into care, and always worked both to maintain the family and in the best interests of the child. The Bill contravenes a child-centred service, and possibly contravenes the UN convention on the rights of the child, particularly article 3 on the best interests of the child, and article 9 on separation from parents.

As I mentioned in an intervention, Wales has a Children's Commissioner, who is required by the Welsh Assembly to have regard to the UN convention on the rights of the child. The commissioner's functions need to be seen in the context of the convention. He is a champion for children in Wales, and I am sure that he will be a champion for the children of failed asylum seekers. As I have already said, the office of the Children's Commissioner for Wales has expressed concern about the Bill. It believes, as many Members have said, that every single child matters. Their rights and welfare, rather than the circumstances that have led to their being in the country, are important. The child impact statement by the National Children's Bureau, prepared for the all-party group on children, cites the recommendation made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in October 2002 that the state should ensure

The proposals in the Bill, however, clearly affect children.

The NCB asks how we can determine whether someone has taken reasonable steps to prepare to leave. How do we determine whether someone is in a position to leave? What about women who are pregnant, and what is the position when there is illness in the family? It is important that those issues are examined in much more depth. The NCB believes that families will go underground or may even decide, as has been mentioned today, that it is in their children's best interests to go into care. We cannot criticise people for making that decision, because many Members have said in forceful terms that we cannot appreciate the desperation of people who want to do the best for their children, but have a different idea about what that entails from us. We cannot criticise their decisions, but we should not drive them into making them.

The UK's reservation about article 22 of the UN convention on the rights of the child has been criticised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The UNCRC states:

That is the key issue. All children should be treated equally, and we are not treating asylum seekers' children equally. Failed asylum seekers' children should be treated the same as every other child in this country. A child is a child, and I do not see how we can have different provisions for different children. We breached that principle before this debate, when we decided that asylum seekers' children would not be able to go to local

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authority schools, but should be educated in the accommodation centres that have not yet been built. That was a bad decision, under which all children are not treated equally.

The Bill goes even further and may bring about circumstances in which children could be physically and emotionally harmed. I hope the Government will reconsider the measure, especially clause 7, which could be damaging and divisive. Many people in Wales have lobbied me about the measure. They feel that clause 7, in particular, threatens social cohesion and all the efforts that are being made to build a society that is diverse and in which we value people for their individual worth. Through legislation such as this, we are moving away from our concept of such a society.

I appeal to the Government to look again at the Bill and to think about why many of us came into politics. All of us on the Labour Benches came into politics to look after the interests of children—not just children indigenous to this country, but all children. I shall be pleased to support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

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