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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there is no conflict between our careful approach to applications from unaccompanied children and the proposals to extend the special appeals procedure. Children are not exempt from the current provisions for accelerated appeals, although the number of certified cases is very small. We expect the number to remain small. The amendment will not exempt children entirely from the accelerated appeals arrangements. Instead, it will leave them in the anomalous position of being the only category of claimants to whom the 1993 Act provisions applied.
Applying the accelerated appeals procedure to children is consistent with the UNHCR guidelines which emphasise the need for speedy determination of their status. Indeed, it is for that reason that appeals made by unaccompanied children already receive priority listing by the Lord Chancellor's Department. If a child has no claim to refugee status, the speedy return to its family in the country of origin can only be beneficial. Clause 1 will assist in that process. That has to be considered in conjunction with the amount of time that may be necessary for that claim to be made in the initial stages of stating a claim for asylum.
The Government recognise that applications from unaccompanied children raise sensitive issues and, for that reason, we do not propose to certify particularly complex or compassionate cases. Each case would, of course, be considered on its merits. That is particularly important. I say that in response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon who was concerned about taking a general view of the situation while recognising fully the particular situation of a particular claimant. That is properly recognised in our procedures.
The appropriateness of using the accelerated procedures would be given careful scrutiny in the light of the circumstances of each individual case. We would take into account a child's individual circumstances, including his ability to understand his situation and to take responsibility for his actions. It would not be reasonable, for example, to expect a young child to know whether the passport he had been given was valid, but the same might not be true in the case of a young person of 17. It is right that the Secretary of State should make those judgments on the merits of the individual case. Certification, and therefore the accelerated appeal procedure, could clearly be appropriate in some cases. I cannot accept, therefore, that all unaccompanied children should be exempt from the provisions of Clause 1, but I must stress that the specialist caseworkers who consider claims from unaccompanied children would only certify a refused claim when that was clearly appropriate in the individual case.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. The noble Baroness has said that the present safeguards would largely obtain even if Clause 1 were to be accepted by the House. Will she comment on what is at the heart of our concerns, which is that the accelerated procedure (followed by the accelerated appeal procedure under Clause 1) would make it particularly difficult for a child who might need to get records from the home country to make out the case for being treated as an asylum seeker? That is what is at the heart of our fears about Clause 1.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have dealt with that point but I shall deal with it again. Because we have special procedures in place for children, the time to which the noble Baroness refers is allowed for in the initial stages. I am referring to the time that is needed to gain the documentation and to secure the information to support the claim. That time is allowed for in the initial stages. Certification follows that; it does not precede it. That is why we believe that the special procedures are an important safeguard. Albeit that that was one of only three arguments that I deployed on the first occasion, I believe that it is important. We do not accelerate the initial decisions. That is where the time is material. I am referring to difficult cases where a child does not and cannot understand, and where the time that is needed to support the claim may need to be prolonged. That is allowed for.
I turn now to Amendment No. 101 which concerns the definition of a "young unaccompanied asylum seeker". First, the amendment is relevant only if any of the new clauses on unaccompanied children in Amendments Nos. 58 to 62 is adopted. The Government oppose all of those amendments for the reasons that I have given.
There is a further difficulty with the amendment. In each case it would raise the issue of whether an adult who is here with the child is capable of looking after him. Such issues have no place in asylum legislation. They are legitimate in terms of child protection, but the Children Act and other legislation provide the necessary measures for safeguarding a child's welfare. The effect of the amendment could be to invite abusive claims that a child's parent or other accompanying adult was unable to look after him simply in order to bring him within
I assure my noble friend Lady Gardner that she can be entirely satisfied on both the questions that she raised. My noble friend Lady Seccombe referred to reuniting children with their families. The Government's view is that unaccompanied children whose asylum applications have failed--after the special procedures consideration--should wherever possible be returned to the care of their family in the country of origin. That is in line with the principle of family unity which is contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution No. 49/172 of 1994 reaffirmed the importance of family reunification. If that was not possible, consideration might be given to whether it would be possible to return the child to other suitable carers. The Government consider that it is better for children who have no basis of stay in the United Kingdom to return home voluntarily as that is the least stressful arrangement. The Home Office encourages that option. Only where voluntary departure cannot be agreed are steps taken to enforce return.
The Government made it clear during the passage of the 1993 Act that they will not seek to remove a child who is under 18 years of age unless it is possible to put in place acceptable reception arrangements in the country of origin. The Government remain firmly committed to that policy on humanitarian grounds. I therefore believe that the provisions that we have in place recognise fully all the concerns that have been expressed in the House about children, particularly unaccompanied children, seeking asylum.
Lord Brightman: My Lords, I can be brief. First, we are not concerned with any acceleration of asylum procedures. All that Clause 1 does--the clause from which I wish to exclude young unaccompanied children--is to cut the right of asylum seekers to appeal to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. It does nothing else. If I am wrong on that, I have no doubt that the Minister will correct me. My amendment is designed merely to preserve the existing right of young unaccompanied children to appeal to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal--that is, a right to appeal if their claim is not frivolous or vexatious. The amendment does not seek to do anything more than that.
I had intended to give your Lordships the numbers who would be affected by the provisions of the amendment. According to the Home Office figures, in 1995 only 486 unaccompanied children aged 17 and under applied for asylum, and only 99 children applied for asylum after entry. That is a total of 585 children out of a total tally of asylum seekers of 44,000 during that year. Your Lordships will see that the numbers involved are a drop in the ocean.
When making up your minds on this amendment I ask your Lordships to bear in mind that the amendment is strongly supported by the Refugee Council, a Government-sponsored body, which above all should know what the problems are. I understand that the definition provided in the amendment is that which has been operating since April 1994 under the panel of