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5.45 pm

Mrs. Brooke: I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the remarks of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). We support new clause 1, and we feel that it is a great pity that it has been included in this group, which rather inhibits full discussion on it. We are particularly concerned about the 18-year-olds whom the hon. Gentleman rather emotionally described. Those possible 18th birthday presents are alarming.

We have already heard about some of the consequences of taking away benefits, or of not giving them in the first place, and we should bear in mind the lessons that we have learned from section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 when considering the proposals in clause 7. The clause is about voluntary departure, and I was very impressed with the carrot approach of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who suggested that we do everything we can to persuade people that that is the best course for them. I am aware that there was much discussion in Committee on that, and that the Minister outlined a number of steps to be taken. Surely, however, there can never be enough steps where children are concerned. That is why I rise to speak today.

Clause 7 uses the threat of making families destitute as an enforcement measure. However we look at that, it is a stick—a very crude one—and I greatly fear the unintended consequences of using it. The first will be that the fear of families about how they will survive, and whether they will be separated, will drive them underground. Surely, the health and welfare of all children in this country should be absolutely paramount. This measure seems to deviate from all the principles that most of us are here to defend.

A second unintended consequence might be that some families will feel that they are doing the best thing by leaving their children here. One can easily see that that might happen. We hear about desperation in other countries, and parents who let their children come over with friends and relatives. That desperation exists. We cannot therefore say that the Bill will not have the consequence that children will end up in care: they will end up in care.

That brings me to the iniquitous position that social workers will be in. As I understand it, when a family is destitute, the Children Act 1989 and the professional ethics of those working with the family require social workers to look first to relieve destitution, but clause 7 proposes the opposite. What should social workers do in

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those circumstances? The framework in clause 7 undermines the professional judgment and skills of social workers, and I can envisage them being put in impossible positions, perhaps being asked to remove children from their parents to increase the pressure on parents to leave the country.

The United Kingdom stopped removing children from their families on the ground of poverty a long time ago. Where, then, are we going with clause 7? I appreciate that Conservative amendments attempt to improve it, but I sincerely believe that the only action to take tonight is to vote for the deletion of the clause. We should remember that we have a proud tradition of caring, including caring for children.

Beverley Hughes: I want to deal first with amendment No. 23, which seeks, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) has just said, to delete clause 7. That would mean that we would be unable to withdraw support from families, no matter how much resistance they had shown or how much time and opportunity they had been given to leave the country once their claim had failed. We would therefore be in a very difficult position, both in terms of trying to achieve our policy objective and of explaining to our constituents how we could require people who were not legally in the country to leave but, if they refused to do so, we would have to continue to pay them to stay here indefinitely.

I do not pretend that this is not a difficult issue. I find it very difficult, but, equally, I am absolutely convinced that we would not have a credible policy if we required people to leave when they should, but carried on paying them and providing them with accommodation at the taxpayer's expense when they refused to do so.

Several hon. Members rose—

Beverley Hughes: I shall give way in a moment.

Briefly, that is the dilemma that we face, and we cannot avoid it simply by saying that we will carry on paying people regardless of their entitlement to be in the country.

Mr. Dawson: Is it not the case that, in this country, we want families to do all sorts of things, and that we achieve that by persuasion and by offering them support? We do not introduce the sanction of removing their benefits. Is it not a counsel of despair, when we are dealing with hard-pressed people who have often been through desperate experiences, to say that the only means of amending their behaviour is to make them destitute?

Beverley Hughes: That is not my intention. The intention of the clause is to persuade more families than at present that they should work with us to return home voluntarily. They should do so to avoid the potential trauma of an enforced return. I described in Committee how I had been out with an arrest team. The contemplation of immigration officers turning up in the middle of the night, getting children out of their beds

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and taking them to a centre to be put on a plane as quickly as possible is something that I would want to avoid in all circumstances, if I could.

The process that I outlined in Committee, which would preface the certification allowed in clause 7, is specifically designed to give families every opportunity to work with us voluntarily to ensure that we get as many people as possible to take a voluntary route home.

Mr. Redwood: What other options have the Government examined in order to try to have their way with returns without having to be too brutal about it?

Beverley Hughes: We have been examining these issues for some time, and have introduced a range of measures to try to increase the number of people returned. Despite the comments of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), we have achieved considerably more success than his Government ever did, with a record number of returns in 2003. However, we are dealing here with a particular group of people, and hon. Members will remember that in October last year the Home Secretary announced an exercise in which we agreed that families who had been here with children for three years or more from 2 October or before would be given indefinite leave to remain, provided they had no criminal record and met certain basic criteria. That recognised that, for families who have been here for some time, there are real humanitarian issues involved. For example, their children will have been in school, and the families will have become embedded in the community. When we announced that exercise, however, we said at the same time that families who have come into the system more recently and who have failed their asylum claims will have to return home. We will not continue the current practice of paying people indefinitely to stay.

Annabelle Ewing rose—

Mr. McWalter rose—

Beverley Hughes: I shall just finish this point.

Alongside the introduction of the clause in Committee, I outlined a process that would ensure that families had every opportunity to work with us. That process contains some of the elements and the spirit of what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has proposed—although not the detail; I do not pretend that it contains the range of counselling and other services that he suggested—in the sense that families would be invited for an interview and be able to discuss the options available and the nature of the process from then on. They would then have a series of up to three further letters setting out where they would be in the process, if they failed to co-operate, before certification took place.

I am trying to stress that, if a family turn up to such an interview and co-operate with attempts to make arrangements for them to return, and if they go along and see the International Organisation for Migration or join one of the voluntary return programmes and work with the voluntary workers who are doing that work for us, they will be supported, no matter how long the process takes. If they co-operate with us to explore those

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voluntary routes, and help us to re-document them and to get the wherewithal to remove them, even if we cannot enforce a removal to a particular country, we will not certify and we will not remove support.

However, if a family fail to turn up to an interview, fail to respond to the letters that we write and do not keep their appointments or speak to the IOM, there will come a point when we have to ask the legitimate question: do we go on paying someone who is behaving like that, when they should be working with us to go home? This is difficult, but there must surely come a point at which people's eligibility to be supported at public expense in the face of their refusal to co-operate must come to an end.

Annabelle Ewing: If it was deemed beyond the pale to include families in the withdrawal of support rules at the time of the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, surely it must remain beyond the pale to do so in March 2004.

Beverley Hughes: I have not said that it was beyond the pale in 2002; those are the hon. Lady's words. As I have said, we have been exploring—using a step by step approach—measures that we need to take across the board to ensure that people whose claims fail return home.

The process that I shall implement in relation to clause 7 is not only fair but comprehensive in trying to get families to the point at which they take the voluntary route. As I have said, if they co-operate with us, they will be supported for as long as that process takes. We shall not remove support if they are working with us.

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