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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, no one has so far asked the vitally important question: what is best for the child? I cannot believe that the situation envisaged by the Government addresses that point. I was enormously pleased to hear the views of the right reverend Prelate and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on this vitally important point. I am not sure that the amendments they have tabled are entirely right, but the underlying principle is enormously important. There is nothing in the Bill which is more important than the rights of the child.
My noble friend Lord Corbett has assumed that the amendment places an obligation to send a child to the appropriate school. I do not think that he is right about that. There is no obligation. But it is certainly a principle which can be embraced by parents if they so choose. For the most part, the young people will benefit by being among people of the same age.
I went to the meeting last night which has been referred to. I should like to quote some of the things which were said which are highly relevant to this debate. Brigid Jackson-Dooley of a primary school in Newham said:
Someone said that the teachers have not been listened to. But is there anyone here or outside who is supportive of the Government's position? I may be wrong, but I challenge my noble friend to indicate who thinks the Government are right about this issue.
I return to what I said before: what is best for the child? No one in this House regards them as the enemies of the state. They are innocents; they are young people who have come here, mostly with their parents. They should not feel trapped. At the moment too many of them do.
My noble friend Lord Corbett raised an important point. He asked: what does one do in the summer when the schools are closed? I think more schools should be open. In the area where I live many schools are open for the children to come and play. They learn from playing with each other. I note my noble friend, who is also a personal friend, nods his head in approbation of that. We do not think enough about the children of the asylum seekers. There is nothing more comforting for them than to be able, if they wish, to go to school, to be among people of the same age, to play with them and to be part of them.
Lord Chan: My Lords, perhaps I may briefly share with your Lordships what seven young refugee children said to some of us this morning; it confirms what has been said. These seven young people came from Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kenya and Nigeria. They said that they had three advantages from being educated in local schools. First, it helped them to forget the trauma they had undergone before they arrived here. Secondly, being able to get up in the morning and go to school gave them a sense of normal childhood rather than being stigmatised as refugees and separated from other children. Thirdly, they said that even if they were to remain in this country for a short period they would always be thankful for what they had learned in our schools.
Lord Bhatia: My Lords, I moved the amendment in Committee and continue to hope sincerely that the Government will respond to the powerful arguments they have heard over recent months, and are hearing again today, by reversing their proposals for segregated education. Nearly 60 years after the introduction of the Education Act 1944, it would be deeply regrettable if a Labour Government decided that school-based education should not be universally available and that a child's immigration status should determine whether or not they could attend mainstream school.
I should like to touch on a couple of areas that I raised during the debate in Committee. First, there has been some debate about whether it is acceptable to keep a child off mainstream school for two weeks, two months, six months or nine months. There is only one straightforward answer to this question: each day that
The Government's supposed "concession" that after six months the education of children in accommodation centres would be reviewed is, therefore, no concession at all, and does not affect the principle arguments against this policy.
Secondly, the Home Office asserts that asylum seekers are exacerbating the predicament of overburdened local schools. It has painted an inaccurate picture of schools whose problems are caused by an influx of asylum-seeking children. We need only to listen to the fierce condemnation of the Government's plans by the major teaching unions to realise that this picture is misleading and perhaps opportunistic. If children have particular needs, the answer is not to set them apart but to find effective and non-discriminatory ways of meeting those needs.
The inclusion of refugee children in mainstream schools can present a substantial challenge to individual schools, teachers and LEAs. The inclusion of other groups of homeless children and children whose first language is not English can bring similar challenges. The answer is not to segregate groups of children who are viewed as problematic but to ensure that adequate and appropriate resources are available to support schools and teachers to build on and share the good practice that has already been developed. The alternative is a downward spiral of marginalisation.
Schools that have a significant minority of children seeking asylum view them not as a burden but as an asset. Earlier today, teachers, parents and children came to Parliament to lobby noble Lords to reject the Government's plans for segregated education. They demonstrated powerfully the solidarity that they feel with refugee children. They made it clear that it is not themthose who actually teach and learn with refugee childrenwho wish them out of their schools.
The head teacher of one school stresses how the whole school benefits from the presence of children seeking asylum. As was cited earlier, the head teacher challenges others to go to playgrounds and to try to pick out the refugee children from the others playing there, stating that other pupils,
Thirdly, barring some children from our schools clearly violates their rights. We listened to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, speak about Article 2B of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which sets out a child's right to be educated,
Finally, the seriousness of the proposal is reflected in the breadth and vehemence of the opposition to it. All the major children's charities have come together with leading refugee organisations and teaching unions to denounce the plans. Professionals and organisations that work with children day in, day out have rejected every one of the Government's defences of the policy. The opposition includes Save the Children, the Transport and General Workers' Union and the National Union of Teachers. I submit to the Home Office that when organisations with such a range and wealth of experience and expertise tell the Government that they have got it wrong, they would be well advised to listen rather than to plough on regardless.
It will be hugely regrettable if those unnecessary elements of the Bill are allowed to stand. They will undermine any claim that the Government may make to the promoting the values of respect, tolerance, diversity and non-discrimination in the United Kingdom. We need to pause to consider whether we should sit here and talk about technicalities of the lawimportant though that isor whether we should think about vulnerable children whose parents for all kinds of right reasons have brought them to this country. Those children are already asylum seekers and/or refugees. They have managed to escape brutalityand, perhaps, torture and death. They came here because their parents thought that they would be safe in a democratic country such as Britain, where law and fairness were two sides of the same coin.
We are in real danger of creating legislation that defies some international protocols to which we have signed up and being unfair to a group of unfortunate people who have come here to seek protection and fairness. How could we arbitrarily not only insist that children who accompany their parents have to be placed in isolated accommodation centreswhich will, whether we like it or not, be seen as prisons or detention centresbut also impose the condition that children are not fit to go to the school to which everyone else goes but will be segregated and put into a separate school?
Human rights advocates have clearly stated their disapproval of that provision. The Joint Human Rights Committee also does not like it. Seven major children's agencies that work closely with children in this country and elsewhere have all said clearly that they do not support the setting up of special schools in accommodation centres. Trade unions have also attacked that provision. Last but not least, the National Union of Teachers has said that it will cost up to £60 million to set up such special facilities, which are currently available in mainstream schools. It says that the plan is ethically unacceptable and an economic nonsensethat a crisis has been created where no problem existed. The question of where those children are educated could have been solved by the application of common sense rather than by a morally objectionable solution.
I strongly beseech your Lordships and the Minister to read the report of the Asylum Coalition, to which reference may well already have been made. It is entitled Asylum City and has been produced by an independent firm of consultants. The introduction is written by no less a person than Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU who, I understand, is close to the Labour Party and the Government. He states:
In the end, everything comes down to law and fairness. The clause seems to ignore the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is manifestly unfair to the children. Surely, your Lordships, including the Ministers, cannot allow such things to happen. There is a danger that there will be a lose-lose situation for everyone. We must give children the education that they deserve and the fairness that they demand. Above all, we must not tinker with the rights of vulnerable children.
My noble friend the Minister must deal seriously this evening with the issue to which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred. Who will do the teaching in the accommodation centres? What guarantees will we have about the quality of what is to be provided? Will we find that the job is subcontracted to a bidder who will provide a minimal service and little commitment to quality of content?
It worries me that we are forgetting the turmoil and trauma that the children are in. If we are to lock them into schools in the very premises in which there is an atmosphere of anxiety, uncertainty and, often, desperation, it will hardly be an opportunity for creative education. It is essential that such vulnerable children, who have been through God knows what, as has been said, should have an opportunity to be educated somewhere where creativity, imagination and positive values can operate.
What are we saying to the youngsters in our society? Are we suggesting that we should deprive them of the opportunity of welcoming into their midst youngsters who are facing so many difficulties and of demonstrating the spontaneous compassion and concern that I do not doubt will often be there? Our children will build their sense of value in the way in which they mix with the children who find themselves in the predicament of being in an accommodation centre.
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