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New clause 12 tries to probe the Government. It would ensure that conditions for residence and reporting were not imposed on someone who claimed asylum or protection under the Human Rights Act 1998 when under 18 and who had been granted leave to remain as a refugee or given humanitarian protection or discretionary leave. Clause 16 gives the Secretary of State power to impose reporting and residence requirements on those with discretionary leave,
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humanitarian protection and refugee leave. It provides for conditions such as curfews or a requirement to live in a specific location.

On Second Reading, the Minister said that he intended initially to apply the measure to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The document that the Government published on 28 February repeated that and put it in the context of changes in the regime for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under the new asylum model, which restricts some of the rights that those children previously received.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): The House is most grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest in the Bill and the amendments that he has tabled. What does he believe to be the purpose of the consultation paper? Does he agree that it should not be implemented until the consultation period has expired, all parties have given their views and the Government have had time to consider them?

Damian Green: It is up to the Minister to explain the purpose of the consultation. However, my hon. Friend’s underlying point is correct. A consultation that takes place during—in some cases, after—the passage of a relevant measure, so that we cannot possibly have responded to it, suggests bad process. Indeed, Ministers cannot properly respond because it is not yet finished. The only consolation that I can give my hon. Friend is that all experience tells us that, just as one immigration Bill passes to the other place and on to the statute book eventually, so another one will come along soon. We have had five such Bills in the past 10 years and we have already been half promised a consolidation Bill next year. One point made in Committee that cannot be made often enough is that quite a lot of the serious parts of previous immigration legislation have not yet been implemented—even while we debate and pass the current Bill. I can well imagine that large parts of this Bill will not have been implemented by the time the next immigration Bill comes along. That is not in any way to defend the way in which the Government do these things.

To provide a more detailed answer, my understanding is that, in future, children and young people will receive only limited leave until they are 17 and a half in order that any further applications that they wish to make can be concluded before they become 18. The Government’s hope is that that will have the effect of making many more young people liable to enforced return immediately on turning 18. The reporting and residence requirements in the new clause are intended to support that approach by providing additional mechanisms to monitor those young people in the period running up to their 18th birthday, when they can expect to be removed.

The contention made by the Refugee Children’s Consortium—and the question that the Minister has to address—is that that approach will not achieve its intended aims. Children who seek asylum alone in this country are often very vulnerable and, whether or not they meet the 1951 convention criteria, many will have a real fear of returning and do not consider it a realistic option. We can debate what should happen in principle
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to such children, but the practical point that I hope the Minister will address is that, faced with these additional residence and reporting requirements, large numbers of children will simply disappear from care and go on to the streets. We all know that if that happens, they are more likely to face danger and possible sexual or economic exploitation. In that case, the Government would not only fail to achieve their aim of removing more young people when they reach 18, but place more children in the way of moral or physical harm. I cannot believe that the Minister wants to achieve that.

Mr. Steen: I thank my hon. Friend for that very comprehensive and informative reply, which I am sure the whole House will have enjoyed listening to as much as I did, but can he help me a little more on the question of being 17 and a half? It seems to have sinister overtones, which I do not fully understand. I wonder whether my hon. Friend fully understands the significance of being 18. Once young people are 18, for example, do they have more rights than they did at 17 and a half? On the question of disappearance, is my hon. Friend aware of the ECPAT report—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—which showed that 48 children in the care of three local authorities disappeared last year? Will the Bill help?

Damian Green: I am indeed aware of that report and my contention is that the Bill may actually make things worse. To answer the first part of my hon. Friend’s question, no, these young people do not get more rights at 18. At 18 they can be deported and the Government are trying to ensure that they know where they are for the six months leading up to their 18th birthdays so that they are easier to deport. My problem with that is that I do not believe that the Government’s actions will make it any more likely that any individual will be there to be deported. Indeed, it is more likely that they will disappear earlier, putting themselves into danger.

Therefore, my objection to the provision is not a principled one but a practical one. It will achieve exactly the reverse of what the Government are seeking to do. To that extent, I agree with the Refugee Children’s Consortium that such an attempt to legislate for open-ended reporting and residence requirements for these children will not work, and that the Government’s rationale is inadequate. The Children Act duties on social services are sufficient to ensure that the children are cared for and protected and that their whereabouts are known. The additional reporting and residence requirements will be counter-productive for the Government and, perhaps even more importantly, for the children themselves.

4.15 pm

Amendment No. 1 would exclude those under 16 from having to have biometric immigration documents. I suspect that there might not be much appetite for another full-scale debate on biometric documents just at the moment, but we shall certainly have such debates again and again in the coming years. The problem is that the provisions in the Bill are age-neutral. It is widely agreed, even by Ministers, that collecting and using biometric data from children is difficult and
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impractical. A study carried out for the Dutch Government found that the

In relation to fingerprints, the same document goes on to state that

During earlier stages of the Bill, we held some very helpful evidence sessions, which were attended by experts including Professor Ross Anderson from Cambridge university. He said that

So, as a subset of the general problem with using fingerprints for such recognition, there is a particular problem relating to children that makes their use even more unreliable.

I hope that the Minister will be able to address the practicalities of the proposal. In particular, I hope that he will provide us with information about the cost of the software required to calculate age-related changes in biometric information, and tell us how that requirement will be funded. Will he also set out the frequency of registration to which under-16s would be subject for the purposes of maintaining a biometric immigration document? Again, I believe that the practicalities will tell against the Government’s aims in this field.

I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) to bring to the debate on amendment No. 36 his considerable expertise and campaigning skills in this area.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman cited the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the treatment of asylum seekers. The evidence that we on the Committee saw and heard, directly and indirectly, made the case very strongly that the convention should apply to asylum seekers’ children and to other children equally. We took evidence from a head teacher, whose view was that there should not be two children in the same class with different rights. One of the issues that we identified was the difficulty of establishing the age of asylum seekers’ children. We were particularly concerned about the use of dental X-rays, and suggested that a more holistic approach should be adopted in that regard. Would the hon. Gentleman care to say something about that?

We were very concerned about the quality of care provided by some local authorities, and about the need for much more specialist training and awareness of the particular concerns facing asylum seekers’ children, which were not being addressed. The hon. Gentleman raised that point in the context of reporting.

Damian Green: I am grateful for all those interventions. The hon. Gentleman’s Committee has done much valuable work. I have seen, as he has, evidence suggesting that dental records are not the panacea that Ministers once hoped that they would be. In all conscience, it is difficult to determine a teenager’s
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age, within two years, on the basis of dental records. Clearly, a difference of two years might be crucial. It seems sensible to use some kind of dental evidence, but perhaps in conjunction with other evidence.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right that the standard of care provided by local authorities is variable. I would speak up particularly for those most exposed local authorities, which are often overwhelmed, and which find that central Government’s financial regime has become less generous in recent years. The borough of Hillingdon, with Heathrow airport in its area, has huge problems in that regard, and I have great sympathy with it and its council tax payers, who must ultimately pick up a large share of the bill for what we all recognise is essentially a national rather than a local issue.

We all agree that we need a fast, efficient, effective and humane asylum system. The problem is that the Government are now so desperate to appear tough on asylum and immigration that, in some parts of their policy, they are in danger of losing touch with basic humanity. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that that is not the case.

Paul Rowen: I support new clauses 2 and 12 and amendment No. 1, tabled by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming).

In Committee, we had a full and frank discussion of the new powers granted to immigration officers under the Bill. The Minister gave a number of assurances, especially with regard to the training and support that immigration officers will receive to implement the new powers. When we raised the issue of asylum-seeking children, he also stated that he was entering discussions with the Children’s Commissioner about making sure that asylum-seeking children were covered by the provisions. When he responds, I hope that he will update us on those discussions.

We, and certainly the Refugee Children’s Consortium, believe that it is an anomaly that immigration officers are not covered by the provisions. We do not see why the Government cannot accept the new clause, which does not impose new restrictions or make the job of immigration officers more difficult. It does ensure, however, that asylum-seeking children are subject to the same safeguards as all other children. Clearly, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said in reference to his report, it is wrong that two children in the same classroom should be subject to different levels of safeguards. I hope that the Minister will accept the new clause.

With regard to new clause 12, on reporting and residence arrangements, as I said in Committee I do not see what particular expertise immigration officers have in relation to looking after young children. The Minister said then that he wanted to ensure that a relationship developed between immigration officers and asylum-seeking children to facilitate their speedy removal. I ask him now to consider what advantages that process has over the existing arrangements under which local authority social services and education departments deal with such children.

I have personal experience of asylum-seeking children who have been subject to all sorts of trauma in their home countries. Some have witnessed horrendous murders, and some may well have been abused
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themselves. Now officers with no training or expertise in dealing with such issues as child abuse are to be asked to build up a relationship. What will that achieve? I do not think it will facilitate the speedy removal of asylum-seeking children. I believe that that can be done through local authorities and National Asylum Support Service officers who, in Rochdale at any rate, are employed by the local authority and have a day-to-day relationship with families seeking asylum. That, I believe, is the best way to ensure that any provisions relating to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are implemented. I fear that if the residence and reporting arrangements are enforced, perhaps clumsily, many children will disappear—which is not the object of the exercise—or put themselves in a position in which they are in someone else’s control, without particularly wanting that to happen. In that event, they might be subjected to all sorts of horrendous acts.

The aim of the new clause is to prevent young people under 18 from being subject to the reporting restrictions. In Committee the Minister gave us no explanation of how the restrictions would apply, and how they would affect such things as education. I asked him then whether young children would have to report to the centre. In the case of Greater Manchester, it would be the Salford centre. What would be the effect of a monthly trip to Salford from Rochdale? Might it not disrupt the child’s education?

We believe that the restrictions are not necessary, and that the controls the Minister wants can be provided through better use of existing local authority arrangements—for instance, through the Immigration Advisory Service.

Let me now deal with amendment No. 1. As the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) pointed out, we have had a number of discussions about biometrics. The Government have allowed themselves everything including the kitchen sink in terms of the information that they want to be stored about people. The plain fact is that, as evidence has shown, fingerprints and facial expressions do not provide reliable measurements.

We tabled an amendment in Committee suggesting that if the Government insisted on using biometrics, they should note evidence suggesting that eye biometrics were the most stable. We believe that the safest course in lieu of that amendment, which was rejected, is to ensure that children under 16 are not subjected to biometrics. In a family context, the process can be dealt with through the children’s parents. I hope that the Minister will reconsider his position, especially on new clause 2 as it would ensure that asylum-seeking children were treated the same as every other child.

4.30 pm

Mr. Dismore: I was not planning to speak in the debate, but as the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who tabled amendment No. 36, is not in the Chamber I shall try, as Chair of the Human Rights Committee, to step into his not insubstantial shoes to talk about people trafficking.

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My criticism of amendment No. 36 is that it does not go far enough. It seems to put in statutory form the requirements of the European convention against trafficking in human beings, which the Government have already agreed to sign. I am pleased that they accepted the recommendation of my Committee to that effect when we produced our report in the autumn, but signing does not go far enough; the treaty must be properly ratified not just by the United Kingdom but by other countries to make sure that it comes into effect.

Amendment No. 36 would recognise and protect the victims of people trafficking, which is reckoned the second most serious international crime after the drugs trade. It is organised crime, involving large numbers of people and huge amounts of money. Several years ago, the Government admitted that 4,000 women had been trafficked for sexual purposes, but that figure is now widely seen to be an underestimate. Having met victims of people trafficking through the Poppy project and heard evidence about that crime, I have no doubt that the provisions of the amendment are important.

It is important that the victims of trafficking are recognised as such at a sufficiently early stage for them to be protected, and that they are not faced with arbitrary removal, as has been the case for some of them in the past. When a brothel is raided everybody is rounded up—victims of people trafficking and traffickers alike. That has to stop.

The convention makes specific provision for unaccompanied children who are trafficked, as set out in subsection (5) of the amendment. Their interests must be represented in the legal process through a guardian; the children must be properly identified and efforts made to locate their family back home.

However, what is important is the question of recovery and reflection, which the amendment, unfortunately, does not define. Recovery and reflection are about putting the interests of the victims of trafficking first—making them paramount in the process. For example, a woman may have been the victim of multiple rape over a prolonged period. Recovery and reflection would give such victims the time to come to terms with what happened to them and the support and counselling they needed to address those appalling experiences, and then to decide the extent to which they could co-operate with the authorities in bringing the perpetrators of their trafficking to justice. On the evidence we heard in the Select Committee, the period of 30 days specified in the amendment, which is the period in the convention, is far too short. It is important that victims are given the chance to have a period of reflection before action is taken on their removal.

As I said, my main concern is that the amendment does not go far enough in protecting victims, to make sure that there is support for them not only through organisations such as the Poppy project but also in the criminal justice process so that their immigration status is dealt with properly. When I met a woman from eastern Europe, through the Poppy project, I was appalled to hear that her trafficker had been convicted and served a lengthy prison sentence, yet her immigration status had still not been favourably determined. That cannot be right and it is an example of what needs to be done.

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