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Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): May I send my season's greetings to the people about whom the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) just spoke?

I would like to take the opportunity of using the last debate before Christmas to talk briefly about a matter that has been brought to my attention by members of the Swansea bay asylum seekers support group. The organisation provides support, advice and practical help to asylum seekers and refugees in my constituency of Gower and other constituencies in the Swansea area. The group does tremendous work, often in distressing circumstances, so I am glad to be able to pay tribute to its enthusiastic and hard-working volunteers.

The specific matter that has been raised with me and other hon. Members is perhaps especially appropriate to this of all seasons if we regard Christmas as a time for families and especially children, as most of us do. I want to consider the impact of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 on families and children, and the possible future impact of the section throughout the country.
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Some hon. Members will remember that section 9 was the focus of much debate during the passage of the Bill, which received Royal Assent in July 2004. It created a new category of people called

and made provision for those people to lose their entitlement to financial and material support under our domestic social welfare schemes. The provision means that an adult failed asylum seeker with a dependent child or children who is regarded as having failed to take reasonable steps to leave the UK can have their entitlement to support from the state ended. That is achieved if the Secretary of State issues a certificate. Clearly, the expectation is that the measure will encourage families with children to leave the UK after their asylum claim has been decided. I am not here to argue against the Government's intention when applying and enforcing their asylum policy, but to draw attention to the consequences of the provision and its possible effects in the future.

It was argued during the passage of the Bill that became the 2004 Act that section 9 would allow children to be used as a tool to coerce families into doing what the Government wanted them to do. It was thought that the failure to view refugee children in such circumstances as children first and foremost could breach the Children Act 1989, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UN convention on the rights of the child. Frankly, I do not have the legal knowledge or specialist expertise to assess whether that is the case or not, but there is growing evidence that section 9 is having a negative impact on children's safety and well-being in some cases, but not achieving the Government's objective.

Perhaps because of the controversial nature of section 9, it has been piloted in three areas: central and east London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. It was applied to a group of 116 families from several different countries with 36 adult dependants and 219 children. In all cases, the families' appeal rights had been exhausted before December 2004.

Soon after the pilot began, Barnado's, with the support of the Refugee Children's Consortium, started an assessment by working with local authorities that were involved in the implementation pilot and some that   were not. Interviews were held with local authority practitioners and the findings of the research were illuminating. Every local authority that was interviewed believed that section 9 of the 2004 Act was incompatible with the Children Act 1989 because that Act requires local authorities always to put the interests of the child first and says that unless there is likely to be physical danger, the best place for a child is with her or his family. However, section 9 requires a local authority to take away the means of supporting a child and then decide whether to take that child into care to ensure that he or she has food and shelter. No local authority staff had received any guidance from the Government on how to undertake human rights assessments. That is important because the withdrawal of support can be prevented only if there is a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The research found that the approach of different local authorities varied enormously. Local authority staff who were responsible for working with families from which support had been withdrawn thought that they did not have the necessary training or experience to
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balance child welfare and human rights considerations with the imperatives of immigration control. Local authorities were all worried about resource implications of section 9 and some felt that there had been a deliberate shift of resourcing from the immigration and nationality directorate to local authority budgets.

Apart from engendering a sense of dismay and uncertainty in social services departments throughout the country, what else has the experience of the pilots taught us? What happened to the 116 families involved? I do not have an absolutely up-to-date picture, but I can give a snapshot of the situation in the autumn. Some 27 families had reached stage 4 of the process, 17 of which had had their support withdrawn under section 9. A further 26 families had had their support withdrawn for reasons other than section 9. Although the pilot began in December 2004, not one family had returned to its country of origin by the following autumn as a direct result of the implementation of section 9. On the other hand—this is the bit about section 9 that worries me most—35 families had disappeared altogether, thus losing contract with the services with which they had been working. By definition, of course, we do not know what has happened to those families, but it is clear that they have made themselves and their children acutely vulnerable and open to all sorts of exploitation. Those families represent 30 per cent. of those in the pilot.

There is good evidence that families involved in the pilot did not really understand their situation or options. Halfway through the pilot, the Refugee Council in London and Leeds and Refugee Action in Manchester sent translated letters to section 9 families involved in the pilot. The families were invited to attend advice sessions or to call telephone advice services so that it could be discovered whether they understood their position. It turned out that many families had not received letters relating to section 9 and that few of those who had received a letter understood it.

The thinking behind section 9 is clear and understandable. Why should the British taxpayer continue to support asylum seekers who have come to the end of the appeal process? I know that many of our constituents support the logic that if we take away such asylum seekers' support, they will go. However, it is hon. Members' job to look beyond that straightforward rationale and to examine the effect of the policy.

It is clear to me that the pilot demonstrates that section 9 has not achieved its objectives and that it would be extremely unlikely to do so if it were rolled out throughout the country. It has created legal and practical problems in the local authorities that have been involved in the pilot and have tried to combine the implementation of section 9 with their child welfare and human rights standards. That situation would be reflected throughout the country if the scheme were extended beyond the pilot areas. Rather than encouraging families to leave the UK, the fear of eviction or separation have driven them to disappear. They are presumably living on the margins of our society, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Surely that cannot be an acceptable outcome of any policy. If section 9 is rolled out throughout the country, thousands of children would be put in such a position through—whatever one thinks of their parents' decisions—absolutely no fault of their own.
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The children's policies that we adopt must take precedence over our asylum objectives if and when, as in this case, they appear to conflict. The children of asylum seekers and refugees are first and foremost children. All of our policies should protect the interests of children as a matter of first principle.

I shall quote from a statement that was put out jointly by the four UK children's commissioners last Friday, which expresses a number of their concerns about the treatment of asylum-seeking children and young people. It identifies, as a particular concern, the withdrawal of welfare from asylum-seeking families and children following a final negative asylum decision and exhaustion of appeals, including the power to separate asylum-seeking children from their families. The commissioners say:

The commissioners

Let us listen to our children's commissioners. Let us listen to people who are working in this area, such as Barnardo's and the Refugee Council. Let us listen also to our directors for social services, and let us just dump section 9.

3.11 pm

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