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Lord Dholakia: I should declare an interest in that I am a trustee of the Save the Children Fund. Much of the briefing on this matter has been produced by a number of organisations active in child welfare situations. I back most strongly what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have said so far.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that adjudicators have the skill to deal appropriately with children during the appeals process. However, that is not to say that some of them do not have such skills. My noble friend Lady Williams and I were fortunate enough to be invited by Lord Justice Dunn of the appellate authorities. We were impressed with his knowledge and also the extent to which he was able to have pre-hearings in many of the cases with which he dealt.
We hope that this amendment will ensure that the provisions that apply in the domestic situation apply in the case of children seeking asylum in this country. If an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child has an application for asylum refused, he or she can appeal to a special adjudicator. Unaccompanied children must give evidence and can be cross-examined on that evidence. The hearings tend to be formal and daunting for children. They may have had to change their legal representation for that stage and be represented by a barrister whom they meet for the first time at appeals.
Research carried out by Save the Children showed that one young person who had gone through appeal found the appeal intimidating and, despite previous explanations, did not understand what was happening. When he gave oral evidence, he was frightened and felt that the adjudicator was unfriendly.
This amendment, and the amendment that is grouped with it, seek the holding of hearings in camera--that is, excluding the public--arranging the hearing room in a less formal manner, or holding the hearing in a different venue; and the use of a video link for children giving evidence. The range of measures in other areas of domestic law concerning the welfare of children is fairly extensive, and lack of these at the Immigration Appellate Authority creates an anomaly and discriminates against an unaccompanied refugee child.
In many areas of domestic law, we always consider the welfare of the child as of paramount importance. The Children Act 1989 sets out in statute a "welfare checklist" for a child to be taken into account by judges. Guardians ad litem are appointed to safeguard a child's interest. There is a presumption in family law proceedings and criminal law that, where a child is a witness, he or she will not attend court. One would like to see child-friendly procedures and guidelines in appeals to afford protection to such vulnerable children. That can draw on good practice from within domestic law. In the past the Minister has been kind enough to accept amendments that I have proposed and I hope that this amendment will receive some backing.
Earl Russell: I should like to make a couple of points in support of this amendment. The first is that a large number of children who arrive seeking asylum are, sadly, orphans. This is something of which Kosovo has recently reminded us. Some of them have family members--aunts, uncles, or grandparents--who are ready to take responsibility for them. I should like to think that in arrangements for the dispersal of asylum seekers care will be taken not to separate such orphaned children from any family members who might be willing to take responsibility for them. That is, I think, a matter of government interest as well as of humanity.
My other point relates to the vexed question of proof of age. We know of course that many of the countries from which asylum seekers have come do not have any equivalent of our modern registers of births, marriages and deaths. Indeed, that used to be the case in this country. Reading the depositions in evidence on cases of proof of age can be a quite hilarious exercise. The number of witnesses who deposed that the child was born "in the year in which I broke my leg playing football" suggest that legs must have been even more fragile than they are now! That presents considerable problems. I think that there is a considerable need for training on this matter.
The Association of Visitors of Immigrants in Detention, of which I have the honour to be patron and with regard to which I suppose that I should declare a non-pecuniary interest, has held a long series of meetings which Mr Colin Harbin of the Home Office has attended. They have, in my opinion, been extremely fruitful and extremely co-operative. I should like to think that the lessons learnt from those meetings would be issued in guidance and made known to those who have to take decisions on proof of age of unaccompanied asylum seekers who claim to be children where the claim is contested. That is something that I hope the Minister will feel able to concede. I hope that he will convey my thanks to Mr Harbin for the care with which he has undertaken that task.
Lord Hylton: I have a great deal of sympathy with both of the amendments in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. Training, not only for adjudicators but possibly also for members of tribunals, is of the greatest importance when they come to deal with children. Amendment No. 107 is concerned with the rules; I am sure we all agree that these should be made as friendly, sympathetic and supportive of children as possible.
We know from a previous parliamentary Answer that about 3,000 unaccompanied children seeking asylum reach this country a year. That is rather a large number. We know that some are joining relatives in this country; but others are not. It presupposes an enormous degree of confidence on the part of those who have sent unaccompanied children to this country that they will be treated sympathetically and correctly when they reach us. In this context, I am sure that the Government will have in mind their obligations under the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child.
The only possible difficulty with the two amendments is that although we are told that they are conceived in terms of unaccompanied children, neither actually says so. Perhaps that is not altogether too bad a thing; the needs of accompanied children may in some cases be closely parallel.
I should say straightaway that it is obviously right that adjudicators should be able to deal appropriately with appeals by children when they come before them. Such appeals are comparatively unusual, but that simply
It is appropriate that I should make the following point. Children are a special case, requiring special care. But, as we have heard, other groups of claimants or appellants are equally entitled to special care; for example, those who are the victims of physical or mental torture. It is neither right nor appropriate that a particular group should be singled out for special mention on the face of the Bill.
Similarly, I understand the principle behind Amendment No. 107. Again, I do not think that that provision needs to be included specifically in the Bill. We are keen to ensure that procedures enable appeals to be dealt with swiftly, fairly and with regard to the needs and rights of the particular appellants. A review of the current rules will be undertaken with the aim of modernising procedures and taking into account the impact of the relevant provisions of this Bill. I am happy to give the noble Viscount an assurance that the review will look carefully and specifically at any special provisions that need to be made in the rules relating to the position of children.
I hope that what I have said will give the noble Lords who have participated in the debate adequate reassurance that the Government and the adjudicators are alive to the special needs of children. Although they are an important group among those for whom rules and procedures will need to provide, they are only one of many. We should follow the principle of including provision on the face of the Bill only when strictly necessary. I hope that I have said enough to persuade the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Avebury: Can the Minister comment on the number of unaccompanied children held in detention over a given period, bearing in mind that the Refugee Council says that it has worked with 80 unaccompanied refugee children in detention since 1st January 1997? That would suggest that the situation is not as rare as the Minister suggested when he said that cases coming before adjudicators were not that common. I would have thought that 80 cases of detention of unaccompanied children were a significant number.
In many of the cases, it is the age of the applicant that is at issue. They are detained because they arrived with documents that said that they were adults and paediatric examination has shown that they were children. That was an important point in the Special Standing Committee, when the Minister from the other
Many years ago, we used to use X-rays of the hands and fingers to determine the age of children whose age was at issue in cases of immigration control. However, on the advice of the British Medical Association, that practice was discontinued because the radiation could cause long-term harm. Therefore, the Government gave an assurance some 25 years ago that they would not use X-rays to determine age for immigration control purposes. They had to fall back on other methods of paediatric examination.
As the Minister in the other place gave an assurance that the issue would be considered, I wonder whether the Minister can say anything further at this stage about what methods will be used to determine age.
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