Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Dubs: My Lords, perhaps I may speak briefly in support of the amendment. When I was at the Refugee Council some time ago I visited Campsfield House. I was surprised to find a young man of 14 or 15 in detention. When I queried that with the officials in charge of Campsfield House they stated that the reason he was there was that his elder brother, aged about 20, was being detained and they thought that they had better keep the two boys together.

I appreciate that the amendment would not cover that young man because he was not unaccompanied; he had an elder brother. However, I believe that in principle there was something wrong with keeping in an adult centre a young man of 14 or 15--Campsfield House is a prison--simply to keep him with his elder brother. But at the Refugee Council, when the panel of advisers was initiated, we discovered through the reporting mechanism that a number of young persons were being detained in various centres in different parts of the country. That certainly gave us a great deal of cause for concern.

In the case of the Campsfield House pair of brothers to whom I referred, it seemed to me that the answer was that neither of them should have been detained and then everything would have been on a sensible basis. However, there is one problem. If a young person is unaccompanied, it is appropriate and proper that he should have accommodation. But I do not think, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, hinted, that the detention of a person can be justified by accommodation difficulties. It would be a lot more humane and proper to look after a young person in other accommodation, perhaps local authority or voluntary organisation accommodation, as an alternative to putting him in detention. This is a very sensible amendment which I hope the House will support.

6 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I believe that those who have spoken in favour of the amendment would have justified their case rather more strongly if, in the course of speaking to the amendment, they had not described a situation which simply does not pertain in this country on the scale which has been referred to.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to our international obligations. First, our record in relation to adhering to international obligations is very good in this country. The noble Earl is all too ready to note those few cases where the Government have lost a challenge on these issues, but the vast majority of cases, and in particular asylum cases, are won by the Government. Therefore, there is some imbalance in the criticisms made by the noble Earl.

Secondly, the procedure described by law is satisfied by the 1971 Act which confers the power to detain as confirmed by Strasbourg. There is also a right to apply

24 Jun 1996 : Column 639

for bail in all cases plus, of course, the supervision of judicial review which, again, the noble Earl was not ready to recognise.

The noble Earl said that we are not consistent with our obligations under the ECHR. That is simply not the case. This is not just our law. Decisions of the European Court of Human Rights have confirmed that the 1971 Act is indeed consistent with the convention.

Amendment No. 59 would exempt unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum from the powers of detention contained in the 1971 Act, unless it appears that the child is likely to abscond if he is not detained. That is the Government's policy in any event. I recognise that this is an important and sensitive issue. But I hope that those who have put their name to the amendment and others who have spoken during the debate will be able to derive some reassurance when I set out our approach to this issue.

It is the Government's stated policy that unaccompanied children under the age of 18 are detained only as a very last resort. Detention is authorised only where there are good grounds for believing that the minor would not comply with the terms of temporary admission, or to facilitate removal. Moreover, when it is considered necessary to detain a child who is under 18, whether accompanied or not, authority at a minimum of inspector level is required for the initial decision to detain, and this must be reviewed by an assistant director within 24 hours.

My noble friend Lord Renton referred to a spot check of case records on 19th June which indicated that only one asylum applicant who we were satisfied was under 18 years of age was in detention. It would be wrong for me to go into details about the case, which is now being considered by the Asylum Directorate. But I can say that the person is 17 years old and claimed asylum after he had entered the country illegally. That confirms that detention of young unaccompanied children claiming asylum is indeed very rare. There is therefore nothing between the movers of the amendment and the Government in terms of approach. The amendment reflects our current practice in cases involving detention.

However, we do not think it would be appropriate to include a provision of this nature in statute. First, the Government consider that the Immigration Service must retain the discretion to detain where absolutely necessary. I remind the House that fewer than 1 per cent. of asylum seekers are currently detained, the majority of whom have already had their asylum applications refused, a point made by my noble friend Lady Rawlings. Moreover, Schedule 1 to the Bill extends the right to apply for bail even further. Any passenger who has been detained for longer than seven days will be able to apply for bail to the appellate authorities, and detention may also be challenged in the courts by way of an application for habeas corpus or once a case is before the courts on an application for judicial review. This applies to all detained applicants, including unaccompanied children.

Secondly, the amendment refers specifically to unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum. Our approach to the detention of children, which I have explained to the House, applies equally to

24 Jun 1996 : Column 640

unaccompanied children who have not sought asylum. I believe that they are also of concern to us all. We do not consider that it is either appropriate or necessary to make a distinction between asylum and non-asylum applicants in terms of our approach to detention.

This amendment would distinguish between different kinds of asylum seeker--those who are port applicants or illegal entrants and those who are subject to deportation action. It would only affect the detention of the former--that is, port applicants or illegal entrants--and not those subject to deportation action.

There is general guidance on detention under the Immigration Act which applies to all those detained, including children. Detention is always regarded as a last resort and factors which are taken into account include risk of absconding; previous failure to abide by terms of admission; whether the applicant has close ties within the United Kingdom; and, indeed, criminal conduct or other matters which may make detention appropriate in a particular case. Children are not detained unless they fall within the existing guidance, and only then as a last resort.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to his visit to Campsfield. I think there may well be a very good argument for keeping a younger brother together with his older brother. I do not believe that it is right for the noble Lord or for this House to second-guess the serious consideration which would have been given to the case of both brothers and to the case of the younger brother in particular.

I also think that it is quite wrong to assume that the older brother was there for no good reason, because the noble Lord suggested that even he should not be there. I suggest that a 17 year-old or even an older young person is quite capable of falling foul of the conditions necessary for him not to be detained.

As I have said, fewer than 1 per cent. of all asylum seekers are currently detained. On 7th June, 751 asylum seekers were detained. As I said, that represents about 1 per cent. of the total number. The great majority of those in detention have already had their claims refused. Of the 751 in detention on 7th June: 181 were awaiting initial decision; 400 were awaiting the results of appeals; and 170 were awaiting removal.

Therefore, children are detained only in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort and almost always because there is a serious risk of absconding. The Government have no plans to change that approach. Therefore, I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, will, first, recognise that we genuinely concern ourselves with the welfare of young people seeking asylum, whether accompanied or not; and, secondly, will feel able to withdraw the amendment in the light of the assurances that I have given to the House.

Lord Brightman: My Lords, the detention of child refugees was rightly described by the noble Baroness on 4th July, 1995, at col. 1080 of Hansard as a "vexed issue". It is indeed a vexed issue. I should like to study what has been said during this short debate. I hope that the Government will consider giving a little more

24 Jun 1996 : Column 641

guidance to immigration officers as to the circumstances in which it may be considered proper to detain an unaccompanied child. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Brightman moved Amendment No. 60:

Before Clause 8, insert the following new clause--

Reference to Panel of advisers

(". If it comes to the knowledge of a local authority or a health authority that a young unaccompanied asylum seeker has not been or may not have been referred to the Refugee Council's Panel of advisers for young unaccompanied asylum seekers such authority shall notify the Panel accordingly.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the amendment relates to the panel of advisers for unaccompanied children. The panel is universally recognised as a highly successful innovation and the Government deserve great credit for setting it up and funding it. The panel's function is admirably described on page 35 of a practice guide issued by the Department of Health:

    "The Advisers are recruited from the communities from which most children will be expected to come. They are selected for their suitability for the role as adviser and are given the necessary training. When an unaccompanied child applies for asylum either at the port of entry or in country, immigration officials will notify both the appropriate social services department and the co-ordinator of the panel, who will offer the services of an adviser to the child. One main function of the adviser is to ensure that the social services department takes the child's wishes and cultural considerations into account. Further, that the child understands as far as possible, taking his age into account, what is happening and what choices he has".
The object of the amendment is to bolster the work of the panel by ensuring as far as possible that unaccompanied child refugees, who for one reason or another slip through the net, are in due course notified to the panel. The amendment says:

    "If it comes to the knowledge of a local authority or a health authority that a young unaccompanied asylum seeker has not been or may not have been referred to the Refugee Council's Panel of advisers for young unaccompanied asylum seekers such authority shall notify the Panel accordingly".
There is a need for such a provision. Examples given to me by the Refugee Legal Centre include a child refugee from Zaire who arrived unaccompanied in this country in 1994 but who did not come to the notice of the panel until 1996. The child had in fact been placed by a local authority with foster parents while his refugee status was investigated without the help that the panel of advisers could have given.

There was also the case of the child refugee from Ghana who arrived in this country in November 1994 but who was not referred to the panel until March 1995. In the meantime the child was sleeping on the floor of a solicitor's office--of all places--while his claim for asylum proceeded in a leisurely and unproductive way without the help that the panel of advisers could have given. I do not suppose for a moment that those cases are isolated examples.

A somewhat similar amendment was moved and withdrawn in Committee. It was described by the Minister as being complicated and burdensome. The

24 Jun 1996 : Column 642

present amendment differs from the previous one in two important respects. First, the new amendment applies only to unaccompanied children whereas the previous amendment would have applied to all child refugees whether accompanied or unaccompanied.

Secondly, the new amendment only requires a reference to be made to the panel of advisers if the local or health authority concerned with the child knows that the child has not been referred to the panel. Otherwise, there is no duty on a local authority or a medical authority to do anything under the amendment. The previous amendment required every statutory authority to notify the panel of advisers as a matter of course whenever a child refugee came within its ambit--or, at any rate, that was the interpretation put upon it by the Minister.

The amendment can only do good. It will cost nothing, except the price of a single telephone call per child when necessary. It supports the Government's own scheme for helping young unaccompanied asylum seekers. It cannot be described as complicated, nor can it be called burdensome. Therefore, the only objections raised in Committee have been met.

Of course, I accept what the noble Baroness said in Committee--namely, that arrangements are in place that should ensure that every unaccompanied child aged 17 or under who arrives in this country as an asylum seeker is referred without delay to the panel. However, it is not difficult to suppose that some children will slip through the net; for example, a child may not be identified by an immigration officer as being an unaccompanied asylum seeker under the age of 18 and, therefore, a candidate for the panel of advisers. I have tried to draft an amendment which is helpful and which will not in any way cut across government policy. I beg to move.

6.15 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, I hope that the amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord will prove to be uncontentious. It is agreed by all in the field that the work of the Refugee Council's panel of advisers is excellent; indeed, it is highly regarded. The Minister said in Committee that the panel is valued by all those working with unaccompanied children and has proved to be another positive development in this sensitive area.

As the noble and learned Lord said, it is not a burdensome amendment. If the work of the panel of advisers is so highly regarded, it seems to me that every effort should be made to ensure that unaccompanied young people take advantage of the facilities that it can provide. As with previous amendments, it may be argued that the numbers involved are small but, even so, if the amendment would help to ensure that a greater number of unaccompanied young people are able to use such facilities, then surely it will do something which is good. I hope therefore that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment or at least indicate that she is willing to respond to the concerns expressed.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page