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9 May 2007 : Column 227

We must make sure that when the victims of trafficking come to light they are properly supported to resettle either in our country or in their country of origin. If they are returned, they should be rehabilitated effectively and properly. At the Poppy project, we heard of one poor woman who had been returned to her country without proper support and retrafficked within 48 hours by her family.

The amendment is important. It adds to the legislation on immigration and asylum some of the protections provided in the convention, which the Government have now agreed to sign. However, it does not go far enough. I hope that in responding to this brief debate the Minister will give a commitment that the Government will seriously tackle this matter, not necessarily with legislation but on the back of the convention that they have so properly at long last agreed to accept.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I feel prompted to do so by the contributions made so far. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for not being present in the Chamber when he moved the new clause; I was attending a Select Committee sitting. However, I know from experience that my hon. Friend has great concern for the welfare of children in the circumstances under discussion, and it is proper to have such concern. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the Government are dealing with children in as humane a fashion as possible and taking their interests into account.

I make no secret of the fact that I have many wide-ranging criticisms of the asylum system. I recognise that many people try to use the system as a means of facilitating their migration to this country when they do not have a proper asylum claim. However, I also recognise that a substantial number of people do have genuine claims for asylum, and we must bear in mind their interests as well. Looking at the system in the world as a whole, I find it hard to see a thread of consistent logic in how it operates, particularly in conjunction with the carriers’ liability provisions that this country has adopted.

However, almost all decisions to come to this country—whether for reasons of economic migration or because somebody is genuinely fleeing persecution—are taken by adults. They are not taken by children. When children arrive here and are unaccompanied, we owe them a special duty of consideration—seeing things from their point of view and recognising some of the experiences that they might have been through. Whenever a child is unaccompanied by an adult, we must do as much as we properly can to ensure their welfare. My hon. Friend made his points on that very well.

I do not intend to discuss some of the legal arguments to do with the various obligations that countries have or those that we seek to place on local authorities and others. However, I know that the Minister is genuinely engaged with this subject, and I seek an assurance from him that the Government are conforming to the highest humanitarian standards in dealing with such children. The public would expect that of us, irrespective of how we might feel about other parts of the asylum system.

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Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to Members for having tabled the new clauses and amendments in this group, so that we have had the opportunity to debate on Report another subject on which we spent a considerable amount of time in Committee. Members of all parties have made representations to me during my happy months as immigration Minister—and I have spent nearly a year in this post now. The fact that they have done so underlines the point that the House takes this issue very seriously, and it is proper that on Report we should have a debate such as this.

We must strike a balance. On the one hand we must ensure that, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, unaccompanied children are given the right level of protection when they come into contact with us in this country and come under our care. On the other hand, we also have a duty to ensure that the deportation of children who have no right to be here and whom it is perfectly safe to remove does not become so difficult that in effect a green light is switched on for every child trafficker around the world.

The Government and the Public Bill Committee have put considerable effort into ensuring that the Bill contains a number of new measures that make it easier to track down people smugglers and human traffickers, wherever on earth they perpetrate their crimes. It would be unfortunate if we ended up with a Bill that in any way encouraged that barbaric trade by making it so difficult to remove people who have no right to be here that Britain became a target.

Our starting point is a protocol that it is perfectly right that our Government should carry on implementing. We did not invent it; it was devised and explained to this House by a Conservative immigration Minister back in the early 1990s. The point is that when such children become adults, it is important for us to ensure that they go back home when a court has said that it is safe for them to do so. Otherwise, it is impossible to maintain the integrity of the immigration system—a sentiment that was well reflected by the hon. Member for Hertsmere.

I am proud to say that this Government have helped to lead the way in Europe on this subject. During our EU presidency we pushed through the EU action plan on human trafficking. When we established the Serious Organised Crime Agency, we made sure that four of the 20 work programmes pursued by it related to tackling trafficking. After considerable debate, we published in March the UK trafficking action plan, which provides an holistic approach to prevention, prosecution and support. Last year we established the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre—a facility that a number of Members have visited. Of course, this year we signed the Council of Europe convention on human trafficking—a subject about which I feel very strongly, not least because my predecessor as MP for Birmingham, Hodge Hill is now the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe.

I shall discuss the amendments and new clauses in reverse order, as the first to which I want to speak is amendment No. 36. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for ensuring that we would debate it, and I agree with him that it does not go far enough. In effect, it picks out parts of the convention and seeks to put them into effect through the Bill. Of course, the problem is that
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incomplete implementation would create risks in different parts of the system. For example, the amendment does not deal with how people get support, or how victims of human trafficking under forced labour provisions might be protected.

We want to ensure that the convention is not implemented in an incomplete fashion; we do not want to drop defences, thereby creating a pull factor. Crucially, we want to ensure protections for all victims of trafficking. I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon the commitment that we will implement the convention, but not in a half-and-half way. That is why we have said that we will ratify it only when we are absolutely confident that we can implement it in full. A project team has been established at the Home Office that is reviewing what training and legislation is required, what legislation is required of other Government Departments, and what support arrangements need to be put in place not just by the Government but by local authorities.

I understand that some 35 countries have signed the convention, that seven have ratified it and that Germany is shortly to sign. Once 10 countries have ratified it, it will effectively be in force. However, it is important for this Government to ensure that when we choose to ratify it, we can implement it in full. Otherwise, I fear that signature and ratification will be dismissed—rightly—as a token gesture.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to the Government for the very positive response that we received to our report last autumn. When does the Minister expect the work to which he has just referred to be completed, and when will the Government be in a position to implement the requirements of the convention?

Mr. Byrne: I am unable to give my hon. Friend reassurance on the time scale this afternoon. I am more than happy to ensure that, either on an individual basis or through the Committee that he chairs, which has taken a close interest in this subject, the Home Office provides regular updates on the timetable and the progress against it, so that we have proper scrutiny and monitoring of an issue of some interest to all hon. Members.

4.45 pm

Mr. Steen: I apologise for not being here to speak in support of my amendment, but I was occupied in two other places. I hoped to be here in time, but unfortunately my colleagues did not speak for long enough.

We are all in favour of the Council of Europe, and we are grateful to the Minister for his interest in getting the convention signed, but how does that square with the consultation paper suggestions, which propose giving children far fewer rights than suggested by the convention? The two appear to be on a collision course. Is that how the Minister sees it—and if not, will he explain why not?

Mr. Byrne: I am happy to do that, because I see no collision course, and my staff spent some time on the report before it was issued, which is why it was slightly
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late. I wanted to ensure that it had proper consideration at the right levels of seniority within the Home Office. The consultation document tries to flush out a couple of ideas, but none is more important than new measures to ensure that we do not have children in the adult care system or—even more importantly—that we do not have adults in the children’s system. That is why age testing is so important.

There are measures in place that may provide certainty to plus or minus five years, but if we were to rely on them we would open ourselves to the risk of having adults in the children’s system, and that is not something that I would be prepared to countenance knowingly. Therefore it is incumbent on us to explore any opportunity to improve the accuracy of age testing. I know that there is controversy over the use of dental X-rays and other methods, and I am grateful for the tone that the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) struck. It is incumbent on us to try to make an imprecise science as precise as we can.

The second group of measures on which we are trying to solicit views through the consultation document concerns the care arrangements available for children. As the hon. Gentleman said, those are concentrated in London at present. That means that boroughs such as Hillingdon, where I have met the directors, shoulder an unfair burden. If we encouraged different local authorities in various parts of the country to become specialists in the provision of such care, we could manage some of the pressures in London better and improve the overall care that we can offer unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That is why I stress that the document is a consultation document. It has been put together with good intentions, and it contains open questions. I encourage hon. Members to respond to it.

The consultation document does not contain any particular question, policy or direction of travel that requires legislation to underpin or implement it. Efforts to strengthen the support that we provide for children will undergo incremental improvement over the next few years. The reform plan for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is one part of that, and the Council of Europe convention is another. There will be others, and we must keep the spotlight constantly on the issue, so that any opportunity to improve care is taken up.

Mr. Steen: I was concerned about articles 10 and 13 of the convention, which provide the victim with assistance and protection. The Minister is clearly satisfied that the consultation paper will not conflict with those objectives, but why have the Government refused to lift the reservation on the UN convention on the rights of the child? That is about giving children protection. The Government keep saying that the convention might conflict with domestic legislation, but what domestic legislation? It would be marvellous if the Government took the lead on that convention.

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I shall address that precise matter in my remarks on a later amendment. However, I shall first pick up some points made by the hon. Member for Ashford about biometric immigration documents. I have somewhat lost track of where he
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stands in the debates about Europe that often surface in his party, and I cannot remember whether he would be influenced by the fact that the European Commission is about to introduce requirements for biometric residence permits. I understand that from this week that requirement will apply to third-country national children aged six and over—something that may appeal to some in the Conservative party, although it may not cut much ice with others.

Two important arguments support the issuing of biometric immigration documents to children. The first is that that will help us tackle trafficking. I shall pray in aid a contribution that I solicited from the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which

We have sought to introduce biometrics in two ways. First, we have issued biometric visas abroad, a process that allows us to pin down the relationship between the child and a particular adult, and to capture the child’s biometrics at that time. We have successfully issued 5,500 biometric visas to children, and by the end of the year they will be issued at all our visa posts abroad.

When a child applies for further leave in-country, we can check the child’s biometrics again, and determine that the family coming along with the child is the same as the one that was with the child when the application for the biometric visa was made. An alarm is triggered if there are discrepancies. I do not understand why we would want to turn that alarm system off, as I consider it an important step forward.

The second argument for biometric checks is that in the long term, they will help us to tackle fraud. Their introduction will help us to govern and police access by third-country nationals to the benefits system. Capturing the biometrics of children allows us to stop the deplorable crime of child swapping, whereby a child is placed with a family to try to improve that family’s eligibility for benefits. The ability to pin down a child’s biometrics on our systems and place that child with a family will give us a way to tackle problems of that sort.

I know that questions have been asked about unstable biometrics. The problems that arise have less to do with capturing the biometrics than with the matching software. The report about the costs of biometrics will be laid before the House shortly, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Ashford will be delighted to hear. In answer to his specific question about frequency of registration, I can tell him that it is currently envisaged that people will be asked to come back after about five years.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): The Minister will be aware that there is growing concern about the very little children, particularly from Asia and Africa, who are being brought in for the purposes of slavery and paedophile activity. They are also being brought in for what are called muti rituals, in which a child is killed for religious purposes. I heard what the Minister said, but his remarks do not apply to those children. We do not really know what we are facing in
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that regard, so what approach has he taken to obtaining the relevant statistics? When he has got them, will he be able to follow up and do whatever is required, including introducing primary legislation? Finally, what does he have in mind to tackle the problem that I have described? The answer that he has just given does not touch it.

Mr. Byrne: I know that the hon. Gentleman has long taken an interest in these matters. We have to try to stop the trade in the first place, so the Bill, which introduces new offences to tackle people trafficking, is an important step forward. Issuing biometric visas helps us to lock down an identity to an individual. All that we are doing in the Bill, through our provisions for biometric immigration documents, is making sure that when a child applies for further leave to remain, or if a child is going to be here for some time, there is a cross-check against the original biometric information. That provides us not with a complete answer, but with another tool to help us discover where things are going wrong. The argument against the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford is: why would we throw that alarm system away? Surely it is better to build tools up over time, rather than to lose them.

Before I come on to the debate about section 11 of the Children Act 2004 and contact management, I should say that I understand the argument that the Refugee Children’s Consortium has put forward, but it sounds a little strange for people to say that an insistence on contact may drive people underground, when at the moment we have no legal means of establishing contact at all. It is important to be able to contact children at regular intervals in order to know whether they are still in the country, where they are, whether they are being looked after properly, and, often, to acquaint them with the prospect that they will be going home again soon. I do not pretend that this is a complete answer, but it is another important tool that the immigration service would find useful.

Mr. Steen: I might be able to be helpful to the Minister, but I need an explanation. The Minister is familiar with the unaccompanied and separated children and refugee projection in the UK report “Seeking Asylum Alone” by Jacqueline Bhabha and Nadine Finch. The report shows that there is a difference between the Home Office figures for applications from unaccompanied and separated children and the statistics provided by the Refugee Council’s children’s panel. There are big discrepancies. In 2003 the Home Office figure was 2,800 and the Refugee Council’s children’s panel figure was 4,658. I wonder whether the Minister could indicate, bearing in mind that the Government grant only 6 per cent. of asylum applications from unaccompanied children a year—94 per cent. get sent back—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This is a very lengthy intervention. I think that the Minister can respond.

Mr. Byrne: I would be more than happy to look at those discrepancies and to spend as much time with the hon. Gentleman as is required to try to get to the bottom of that matter.

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I was talking about the need to maintain contact arrangements with children, particularly when they do not have the right to be here. While honouring our commitment not to send children home when, in our view, the reception arrangements are not appropriate, it is important that we make arrangements to send them home as soon as it is safe to do so.

I now come to the debate about section 11 of the Children Act 2004, which was where the hon. Member for Ashford started. This is an important area and we have spent some time reviewing it over the last 12 months. The nub of the problem is that the section 11 duty is not a simple duty. There are two parts to it. On the one hand there is a duty to safeguard the child, but on the other there is a duty to promote the child’s well-being. The Department for Education and Skills guidance that comes with the duty is clear. It says that the duty is to make arrangements to ensure that

It also mentions:

The analogy with the police is helpful, because the police do not seek to deport people to third world countries. Although our advice is that, legally, we would win the cases—I am sure that the refugee children’s organisations have gone to some good lawyers to solicit advice and ascertain that there are no barriers to the Home Secretary setting removal directions—unfortunately, that is only part of the story. My great fear is that there would be a licence for judicial review to multiply. One can easily see that lawyers could file judicial reviews challenging decisions and arguing about a Home Office decision to deport somebody to the Democratic Republic of the Congo or parts of south-east Asia. I think that lawyers would question how that would be consistent with the duty to enable those children to have optimum life chances and enter adulthood successfully.

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