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2 Jun 2009 : Column 227

I went to see the family because of the circumstances of their attempted removal last week, about which I have already written to the Minister. A further letter has gone to him today. I agree with the hon. Lady—I have always found the Minister, who is a long-standing friend, capable and humane. I hope that he will agree to my request to see him before removal directions are carried out.

I visited the family on Saturday with a member of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, to whom I pay tribute. The Befrienders are a group of ordinary men and women who, sometimes out of Christian conviction, sometimes out of sheer humanitarian concern, go and see the people who are detained in Yarl’s Wood, not because they are taking part in their cases—that is left to lawyers, refugee groups, asylum groups and others—but because they want those detained, who are currently almost exclusively women and children, to have someone to talk to, who might care for them and understand what they are going through. We know that all sorts of cases end up in a detention centre—in some, it is appropriate that the people are returned. There will be cases of justice and injustice, but all who are there need a human touch at times, and the Befrienders do a wonderful job. On Saturday, I went with Heather to see the family whose case I am describing about their attempted removal.

I was contacted suddenly before their anticipated removal, and I asked whether the Minister would be good enough in the circumstances, bearing in mind the likely consequences of their return for the girls, to put the removal directions on hold and allow the family more time to see a new solicitor and present another case. On the afternoon in question, the family were taken from Yarl’s Wood. They were in a van on their way to the airport when news came through from the Minister’s office that he had been kind enough to grant a stay of removal directions. The information was immediately transmitted to the mother, who still had her mobile phone, and she told the escort service that the removal directions had been cancelled. Understandably, the escorts needed to confirm that and they did so shortly after they arrived at the airport.

However, instead of being immediately taken back to Yarl’s Wood, the family was taken to another part of the airport, away from the main concourse, and then on to the tarmac. Their bags were loaded into the plane and it was made clear that the family would be put on the plane. The family members were separated from each other so that the children could be loaded on to the plane first. The mother became extremely distressed and was restrained in the elastic cuffs that are used. I am pleased to say that the children were not so restrained. The mother resisted, not unnaturally, and there was further to-ing and fro-ing. She was placed in the aircraft, where she continued to resist, and then the escort said that further confirmation had been received that the removal directions had been cancelled. That followed a further intervention on my part to the Minister’s office, asking what on earth was going on when removal directions had been cancelled but, contrary to the Minister’s express wishes, were being carried out.

The family was taken off the plane, put back in the van and returned to Yarl’s Wood, where they were placed in a separate area to help them recover. I appreciate
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why Serco at Yarl’s Wood did that—I am sure that it was right and proper. The next morning, before they were to return to the unit, they were served with a further notice of immediate removal, which was in breach of the 72-hour rule. They should not have been served with such directions until 72 hours had passed after the previous attempt to remove them. Again, I made a further intervention and again, the Minister’s office understood that a mistake had been made and the order was countermanded. The family was then let be, and I went to see them a couple of days later.

I wrote to the Minister, saying that I would be grateful if he held an inquiry into the circumstances and ascertained why instructions had been countermanded and why the family had been put through the extraordinary distress and agony, which I cannot adequately convey to the House, of being told that their removal had been cancelled and then put on a plane, having the directions rescinded again, returning to Yarl’s Wood and receiving a further removal direction. The hon. Lady spoke about clause 57, which deals with the welfare of children, and I am wondering where current provision for welfare is in such circumstances. I have asked the Minister whether he will be good enough to inquire into the circumstances.

I learned this afternoon that removal directions have been set again for the family for Friday. As far as I know, no inquiry has taken place into what happened the other week. No time has been given for the new solicitors to make proper representations about what is likely to happen to the girls when they return to the Sudan. I am deeply upset that a further intervention by me is required to ask the Minister to give proper time for an inquiry into what happened and the reasons for it.

I also ask the Minister to consider the case because I think that the family should be out of there. I do not mean that the case should be closed, but I do not believe that the family should be in Yarl’s Wood. Families are detained at Yarl’s Wood because the UK Border Agency has reason to believe that they might abscond. I am still puzzled about why families with children, especially young children, who need to be registered for health and education reasons, are perceived as likely to abscond. We all understand that that might apply to single people or even couples, but I have always been puzzled about why it would apply to children. The reason given is that families have refused directions previously and that makes them likely to abscond. I do not think that it does. I believe that it makes them likely to refuse directions in future, but not to abscond from their homes.

The family should go back to Cardiff. The 14-year-old was unable to take a public examination when she was due to take it. As the hon. Lady knows, that is often a consequence of the UK Border Agency’s intervention and of taking children at the wrong time, such as sensitive times for their education. The young lady was allowed to take her exam in the confines of Yarl’s Wood.

That is only one family’s story. I do not pretend for a second to have the answers. I understand why some children are sometimes detained and why it is not possible for the Minister to say that we should never do so. I also understand the restriction on my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), but I am concerned.

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I have been talking about just one family’s story. I do not know whether we can have a policy in this country for no child ever to be returned to a place where she would face female genital mutilation, but I wish that we did. I do not see how we can make that work for everybody, but I am sure that the House can understand that anyone who had met a family in such circumstances, worked with them and seen their children would want to find some way of ensuring that what they feared did not happen. The situation is like the story of the woman on the beach who sees all the starfish lying on the shore. She walks down, picks one up and tosses it into the waves, but there are hundreds more on the shore, so her friend says to her, “What on earth are you doing? Look at all the starfish. You can’t deal with them all,” and she says, “No, I can’t deal with them all. But I can deal with this one—I can toss this one back.”

Sometimes that is all that we can do. We can see only the odd case that comes to our notice and try to do our best. When the Minister gets back to his office, will he kindly look at the letter that I have written, lift the removal directions for this week, give the case an opportunity to be looked at afresh and see whether there is not a better answer? In the meantime, while the case is being considered—it may take some time—could the family return to Cardiff, where they ought to be?

7.21 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I apologise to hon. Members for coming late to this debate. I have been in the Committee considering the Finance Bill all afternoon.

I want quickly to raise a straightforward point about a constituent of mine, William Watrin-Cattrall. He was born to a British father and a Dutch-Indonesian mother who were not married. As a result, young William, who has been pressing for some years to be a British citizen, is not allowed to be one. I ask the Minister please to revisit the amendment tabled in another place by Baroness Falkner that would allow those born to British fathers, but whose mothers are not British citizens and are not married to their fathers, to register as British citizens if their rights to do so derive from paternity.

The Secretary of State currently has some discretion in respect of those who fall foul of the legislation. The law changed in July 2006, but I am not clear in how many cases citizenship has been granted. I would welcome any figures from the Minister on just how many people have been given citizenship. However, I hope that the Government are willing to revisit the issue in the course of the Bill’s passage through this House, as his colleague in the other place has suggested. My simple plea is therefore this: will the Minister please look at the issue for my constituent William Watrin-Cattrall?

7.22 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): This has been a fascinating debate and, particularly given the revelations of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), a moving and in some ways horrifying one. That causes some difficulties, in that I can either respond to the debate or address the Bill, which is what this debate is supposed to be about, because, to be honest, the two bear a slightly tangential relationship with each other. [ Interruption. ] As urged by the Minister from a sedentary position, I shall concentrate largely on the Bill, as that is what we are meant to be debating.

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Let me first take this opportunity to say that I hope that the Home Secretary finds life more peaceful and less turbulent out of the front line. Let me also assure her, in her absence, that I for one will be reading at least one part of her memoirs with particular interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) made a thoughtful contribution and was right about the necessity to debate immigration with the right tone. At times in this House and outside, that has not happened. It is incumbent on us all to give a lead in that respect.

The Bill illustrates that we have a Government who, after 12 years of struggling—and largely failing—in immigration policy, are now just punch drunk when trying to deal with it. The House sees a new immigration Bill every year, but far too many of them, including this one, ignore the real issues and instead add to the confusion of those caught up in our immigration system.

This was originally meant to be the year when we had the great reforming immigration Bill, replacing all legislation going back to the 1970s and simplifying it. Then Ministers published a draft Bill, with 13 parts and 214 clauses, which they said was part of the biggest shake-up of the immigration system for a decade. By the time we saw the Bill before us today, it had shrunk alarmingly, to four parts and 55 clauses. Being realistic, I should welcome that. Too much of the Government’s legislation is usually damaging, so the less of it and the smaller their Bills are, the better. Despite that shrinkage, however, the Government have nevertheless still managed to include a fair amount of bad ideas in the Bill, which is why we welcome the improvements that were made to it in the other place.

However, if I understood the relevant parts of the Home Secretary’s speech correctly, it is particularly regrettable that it is still the Government’s intention to remove many of the improvements that were made in the other place. Presumably that is what we will spend some of our time in Committee debating. If so, I should tell the Minister now that we will oppose him in those endeavours. I hope that other parties will do the same, because in many cases where the Government suffered defeat on the Bill in another place, it was because of cross-party efforts. I hope that we will continue that in this House.

We have before us a rag-bag Bill that lacks any internal coherence, although some of it is useful. We have heard contributions from the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire about clause 57 and the improvements in the treatment of children. We welcome that and, more importantly, we hope that it will lead to a genuine change in how children are treated in the immigration system. Some of the Bill is therefore useful, but some of it is irrelevant and other parts are actively damaging.

Let me go through the various parts of the Bill. Part 1 deals with functions at the border. The Government are clearly trying to reduce duplication of functions. We think that that is a useful step, but we think even more strongly that the Bill is a missed opportunity. The Government’s failure to tackle Britain’s porous borders has resulted in a disastrous rise in organised immigration crime. We cannot tackle crime in the UK effectively without addressing the problem of our porous borders. We believe that our borders can be better policed,
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preventing significant illegal immigration, as well as cracking down on the trafficking of people, weapons and drugs. That is why, as my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary explained, an incoming Conservative Government would make the setting up of a national border police force one of our top priorities. The Bill could, if the Government were to co-operate, allow us to make a start on that.

Experience has surely taught us in all parts of the House that the specialisation of police services is effective in fighting new types of crime. That is why we set up a committee under Lord Stevens, a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who conducted a review of our border security arrangements and concluded that only a unified border force could protect our borders effectively. We intend to replace the current system, which lacks a fully comprehensive and joined-up strategy as well as adequate direction. The officers of the border force should have all the necessary powers and training to arrest, detain and prosecute offenders, as well as the ability to develop specialist skills in fighting people trafficking, illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Although part 1 has some useful features, it is a huge missed opportunity.

Part 2 concerns citizenship and naturalisation. I originally thought that the problem with this part of the Bill was that it was slightly irrelevant to the real and very complex issues affecting community cohesion and national identity. I freely agree that those issues are crucial, difficult and hugely complex. My original worry about the Bill was that it sent out a clear message that even if someone is here, working hard and contributing to society, the Government want to make it more difficult for them to stay here and become British. That seems to be the message behind the Bill, and I am genuinely not sure that it is one that the Minister really wants to send out. It might suit some short-term, dog-whistle politics, but it is certainly not the most thoughtful long-term strategy.

The problem is that the Home Secretary complicated matters even more in her speech this afternoon, which I found completely extraordinary— [ Interruption. ] If the Whip would like to contribute to the debate, he is more than welcome to do so— [ Interruption. ] Okay. Well, if he is telling the Minister what to say, I feel for the Minister.

Let me return to what the Home Secretary said earlier, because it was extraordinary in two ways. First, she said that she was proposing a new points-based system for citizenship, along with the points-based system for general immigration that the Government have introduced. It seems extraordinary—especially at a time when this place finds itself in more ill repute than it has done for a long time—when we are discussing a Bill that partly deals with citizenship, that the Minister responsible for the Bill should announce that a whole new citizenship policy is coming down the line and that she is proposing to introduce it for consultation within the next eight weeks. There is not a word about this new policy in the Bill that the House of Commons is discussing today and that the House of Lords has already spent weeks discussing. What kind of way to treat Parliament is that? The Home Office is quietly working away at a whole new policy relating specifically to a policy area in
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the Bill, yet it has not thought to share it with any of the parliamentarians who are debating the Bill. I think that Ministers should consider their behaviour very seriously.

Even more extraordinary was the fact that, at one stage in what was not—let me be charitable—the most coherent explanation of a policy that I have ever heard, the Home Secretary said that she would cap the number of people granted citizenship each year. So she is proposing to introduce not only a new set of hurdles in the form of a new points-based system, but, on top of that, a cap. Like everyone else, I appreciate the irony that that sounds very similar to our proposals on general immigration, which she has always criticised and dismissed. She now appears to have adopted them wholesale in relation to citizenship.

It seems very peculiar that a proposal as radical as this could be introduced in the middle of our deliberations on the Bill. It is not even as though we were promised the Bill in the next Session of Parliament. We have been promised another immigration Bill in the next Session, but it is supposed to be for simplification purposes. A radical change to the citizenship arrangements in this country is being introduced between two immigration Bills that the House is supposed to be debating, which is the most extraordinary way to proceed.

But let us discuss the Bill before us. Two areas give rise to particular concern. One, which has been mentioned by Members on both sides of the House, is the offer of a quicker route to citizenship if voluntary activity is undertaken. That comes very close to compulsory volunteering, which is perhaps the ultimate absurdity. I share the fears of the Home Affairs Committee, which has produced a thoughtful report on the Bill:

That is a genuine fear, and I hope that Ministers will listen to it. I hope that they will also listen to Volunteering England, which has asked a number of questions, the most pertinent of which is:

We are in the throes of setting up yet more unnecessary new bureaucracy that will make life difficult, particularly for the small organisations in the volunteering field that often do very good and important work.

The other unsatisfactory aspect of this part of the Bill—it has been much improved by their lordships—was the retrospective section relating to highly skilled migrants who are already here. That group has already won significant victories in the courts against the Government, and it would be sensible for Ministers to stop fighting a battle that they keep losing. In the Lords, my noble Friend Baroness Hanham succeeded in introducing an amendment, which now stands as clause 39. It ensures that people in the closing stages of their limited leave to remain do not get caught up by the new arrangements. That is only fair. Indeed, on 6 April, Mrs. Justice Cox found that there was

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