Standing Committee B
Thursday 15 January 2004
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Failed asylum seekers: withdrawal of support
Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question again proposed.
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): We have had a useful debate on the clause and have covered a lot of ground and important detail on the implementation of the measure. I want to say at the outset that this is difficult territory for us all. We face the competing imperatives of wanting a fair system that treats all applicants in the same way and having to attend to the possible consequences for the families affected by the measure. I appreciate the spirit in which hon. Members have tried with me to strike the best possible balance between those competing imperatives.
As hon. Members will know, the current position is that failed asylum seekers with dependent children receive asylum support, both cash and accommodation, until they leave the United Kingdom, or fail to comply with a removal direction. In parenthesis, I should respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). He is right that a power to remove support at that stage already exists. It has not been used, and one reason for that is the difficulty relating to families destroying their documents. Without their assistance in the process of redocumentation, it has been difficult to use the power. Part of our intention with clause 7 is to encourage people not only to return but to help us to redocument them when they are in that position.
Under the clause, if the Secretary of State certifies that such people have failed without reasonable excuse to take steps to leave the United Kingdom voluntarily or to place themselves in a position in which they can do sofor example, by helping us to obtain a travel document on their behalfasylum support for the family will cease.
In deliberations leading up to this Committee, the proposal was scrutinised by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It is interesting that the members of that Committee accepted the principle underlying the clause that it is absurd and unreasonable to continue to support failed asylum-seeking families indefinitely. The present removal directions system is both resource intensive and, necessarily for that reason, slow in effecting the increase in the number of departures that
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we want to achieve and that members on both sides of the Committee, notwithstanding how they vote today, have said is reasonable for the Government to pursue.
It is constructive that all members of the Committee have accepted that the objective is reasonable and that it must be pursued. Not to pursue it would undermine a fair system and allow those who want to avoid a return home the possibility of doing so, which would be unfair to those who return voluntarily. It is also constructive that all members but one accept that our intention is not to render families destitute or to take children into care and that the Bill says nothing about doing that.
At this point, I must put on record my concern, which was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), about the information put out by the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) and her colleagues in the Scottish National party. The party website carries two claims, both of which are absolutely wrong. The first is:
''David Blunkett plans to punish refugees seeking asylum by taking their children away from them.''
It is wrong to claim that we intend to punish asylum seekers by taking their children into care, and every Committee member apart from the hon. Member for Perth understands how such children could go into care only in the event of a deliberate choice by their parents not to return home or to help us to return them.
''Scots' law won't let that happen. His writ will not run north of the border.''
It is wrong to say that powers and obligations for children, whatever their circumstances and however those circumstances arise, are different in Scotland from those in England and Wales. The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 gives authorities the same powers and obligations in the event of children being in difficulties, as the Children Act 1989 gives to authorities in England and Wales.
Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): In the first few minutes of the Minister's statement, she has already attacked the SNP. That is a feature of new Labour, especially Scottish MPs, who I assume must be feeling defensive about their position. It is instructive that she did not exclude the possibility of a child being taken into care as a result of the clause. That is the issue that we have been debating, and she.
The Minister will also recall that I raised the question of the interaction between the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 and clause 7. I had already raised that matter in December with the Advocate-General for Scotland. The Minister promised to examine that and to reply to me but I have not yet received a response.
Beverley Hughes: Let me make it clear that I do not intend to criticise the SNP. I want merely to put on record an absolute refutation and rebuttal of the claim published on the SNP website that we intend to punish people by taking children into care. Every other member of the Committee fully understands that there are no powers in the Bill to take children into care. The repercussions felt by children of any implementation
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of the measures of the Bill will be as a direct consequence of the parents' failure to make the choices available to them. In every situation, the parents will have the possibility of accepting the offer of an assisted return home together as a family unit. Returning home is an available remedy for every family to whom the measure might apply.
Several hon. Members rose
Beverley Hughes: I give way first to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten).
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I want to be responsible and to say the right things on websites. I would be irresponsible if I said that the Home Secretary will take children into care. However, would I be irresponsible in saying that a consequence of the measures is that, if parents ignore them, children could be taken into care? Would I be acting responsibly in publishing that on a website?
Beverley Hughes: That would be misleading because the same thing could be said of the Children Act, or the Children (Scotland) Act. If parents behave in a certain way and ignore their parental obligations, a consequence of the Government's child protection legislation could be to take children into care. The hon. Gentleman's statement removes from the exposition the role and responsibilities that parents have. It is incomplete and therefore misleading.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for allowing the hon. Member for Winchester to intervene before I did. He illustrated exactly what the hon. Member for Perth was demonstrating under her breath, which is that there has been a tendency to blame the Government for decisions taken by parents. I accept that the legislation allows a certain consequence, but that consequence is not that children be taken into care but that parents have less money than expected. That is entirely welcome in the eyes of most of my constituents, if those parents should not be in the country.
Beverley Hughes: I do not want to fall into the trap of expressing pejorative views about the motives of parents or others who I do not know. I take the neutral and very reasonable line that, when people come to the end of the process and have had every opportunity in the process, it is entirely unreasonable, when there is a remedy open to parents, for support to continue indefinitely in the face of lack of co-operation in respect of returning home. I make no other judgment about people and their motives or intentions. I simply say that the current practice is unreasonable, we must act to end it and that is what the clause is about.
The hon. Member for Winchester and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned enforced removals, which is an important point. I do not necessarily share the hon. Gentleman's view that enforced removals are okay or preferable. I would prefer people to go home voluntarily. I can only say to him again, without labouring the point, that if he had been with me on a visit with an arrest team at 4 in the
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morning and seen what that involves, he might have changed his view. All hon. Members need to appreciate how difficult and demanding enforced removals are in terms of resources, process and procedure. I shall give an example, and if hon. Members think it through, they will understand the point.
On the morning last year when I went out with an arrest team, there were eight or nine immigration officers, two cars and a people carrier. That number of staff is required because, if someone is apprehended, we need enough people to take that person to the nearest police station to be processed, as well as enough people to go to the next address safely. The safety of the officers and the people involved is paramount.
The team that I accompanied was out from 4 am until about 9.30. Teams go out at huge cost and are sometimes not very productive. People may not be at the address at that time or may have moved, and it is not always possible to know where people have moved. We do not get a good return on every outing on the resources that we have invested in trying to apprehend people. Let us face itmost people, for reasons that we can understand, do not want to go. They do not want to return home. The situation is very difficult.
The clause is the only way, or certainly the best way, to attempt to bring the realisation that support will not go on indefinitely to the forefront of people's minds at the point at which they exhaust their appeal rights in this country. They must take seriously the fact that support will or could be removed if they do not co-operate. However, while being robust and unapologetic about that objective, we are trying to ensure that we institute a fair and systematic process. I want to ensure, for my benefit as much as anyone else's, that the process gives people both opportunities and clear milestones, so that they are very clear about the consequences if they do not co-operate.