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Calais Children and Immigration Act

Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the Calais children and the guidance document published by her Department for section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016.

The Home Secretary updated the House on 24 October on how the Government were supporting the French authorities in the humanitarian operation to clear the camp in Calais. That statement outlined the Government’s absolute commitment to bring eligible children from France to the UK. That included those with close family links under the Dublin regulations and those unaccompanied refugee children who met the wider criteria of the Dubs amendment to the 2016 Act. These children are the very youngest, those assessed as being at a high risk of sexual exploitation, and those likely to be granted refugee status in the UK. On Monday, my Department published further details of the policy, including our intention to prioritise the youngest.

We remain absolutely committed to bringing all eligible children to the UK as soon as possible. More than 300 children have been transferred from France since 10 October. Transfers were resumed over the weekend, and another 19 girls assessed as being at high risk of sexual exploitation were brought to Scotland. It is important to note that all the children previously in the camp in Calais are now in the care of the French authorities. Staff from the UK supported the French operation to move the children from the container area in the camp to specialist centres across France, where they are receiving the care and protection they need.

Home Office staff, interpreters and social workers are currently visiting the centres to carry out the necessary assessments to determine whether it is in the best interests of the child to be transferred to the UK. The Government have continued to seek every opportunity to expedite this process, but as has previously been made clear we must work alongside the French and with their permission. I am grateful for the support of the local authorities that have stepped forward to accommodate the children and look forward to continuing to work closely with those authorities to ensure we do not place an unnecessary burden on them.

The Government are getting on with the job of bringing eligible children over to the UK, working closely with the French authorities to ensure that both Governments are working in the best interests of these children. I hope that the whole House will join me in supporting that.

The chaotic demolition of the Calais camp, which abandoned some children on the street, leaves upwards of 1,000 children in basic and temporary care facilities in France. In the days running up to the demolition, the Home Secretary made statements that pointed to the UK offering a home for up to half of the children in the camp. It is unclear how that will be achieved given the criteria in the guidance document, so I hope that in answering my questions the Government will be able to explain how that will be done.

What progress has the Home Secretary and her Department made with local authorities on agreeing the number of vulnerable children the UK will take from Calais and other European camps? Will the guidance and the criteria apply to other European countries, such as Italy and Greece? When will the criteria for those countries be produced? Why has the Home Office limited one of the criteria to Sudanese and Syrian unaccompanied children? Why are Eritrean children excluded? Can the Minister explain why they have chosen to exclude 16 and 17-year-old children from the eligibility criteria in Calais given the universal recognition that they are still children and still vulnerable? Given the Government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery and exploitation at home and across the globe, will the Minister clarify why the vulnerability of these child victims is not included in the “at risk” criteria? Finally, what guarantees can the Minister give that the children who will eventually be allowed into the UK will not be deported on reaching the age of 18?

This House agreed to the Dubs amendment and our Government must now set out how they are going to honour its letter and spirit.

It was absolutely right that, during the final days of the camp clearance, there was a pause. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there were some chaotic scenes, but they were not as chaotic as some of the scenarios that we had planned for, including violence, possible injury and even death, during that clearance. Now that the children have been transported to the reception centres—or welcome centres as the French call them—around the country, we can now assess them under the criteria of the Dubs amendment. More than 300 children have already been transferred to the UK, and we expect several hundred more to be transferred under both the Dubs amendment and the Dublin regulations.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the numbers. Under the Dublin regulations, there is no limit on numbers—if the children meet the criterion of having family here, they will be brought across. That applies not just to France, but to Italy, where we have Home Office people working, and to Greece, where things are slightly more difficult, but where we hope to make progress.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the Syrians and the Sudanese. It is absolutely important that the children we bring across are those who are more likely to qualify for asylum. He mentioned the Eritreans. I know that there are particular issues with Eritrea—I have been taking an interest in that country, particularly in the open-ended nature of the national service there—but we did update our country guidance in October to reflect the court judgment. The threshold that we have put in place is based on overall grant rates for the year ending June 2016, and the nationalities that have a grant rate of 75% or higher are the Sudanese and the Syrians. Yes, he is absolutely right that when children arrive in the UK they should claim asylum, and they will be processed in the usual way.

The demographics of the children in the camp are that 90% were male and 60% of them were in the age group of 16 and above. We are determined to assess the most vulnerable children, as they are the ones whom the Dubs amendment suggests that we assess. That includes those who are 12 and under; those who are 15 and below whose nationalities are likely to qualify them for refugee status; and those at high risk of sexual exploitation, including particularly the girls who could be trafficked.

The qualifying eligibility criteria for children from Calais are a disgrace. The children have to meet one of the following criteria: they are aged under 12; they have been referred by the French authorities as being at high risk of sexual exploitation; they are aged under 15 and are Syrian or Sudanese; and they are aged under 18 and the sibling of a child in one of the former categories. They must also all meet the following criteria: it must be in the best interests of the child; they must have been in Calais on or before 24 October 2016; and they must have been in Europe before 20 March 2016. The criteria are a disgrace, and are certainly not in the spirit of the Dubs amendment.

On the basis of the criteria, it seems that any child at medium or moderate risk of sexual exploitation is on their own. A child is a child until the age of 18, and it is wrong to restrict children’s right to transfer based on their age. It is not clear what the basis or authority for determining the additional criteria are, or whether there is any appeals procedure.

The arbitrary dates mean that children who came to Europe after 20 March are on their own, whatever their age, and that children who came to Europe after 24 October are on their own. Children are at risk of all kinds of exploitation, including trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery, but this Government do not care. [Interruption.] If Members are not comfortable with what I am saying, that is not my problem. Without a proper asylum process, we risk pushing children into taking dangerous journeys to the UK in order to get a fair hearing for their asylum claim. None of this meets the Dubs amendment, which is that any child who would benefit from asylum in the UK should be granted it—up to 3,000 children. Will the Government now meet the full demands of section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 as voted for in this House?

The hon. Lady has gone completely over the top. I am proud that the United Kingdom is the second biggest donor in the region. I am proud that the United Kingdom has agreed to take 20,000 people from the region and an additional 3,000 people, including children from the wider area. I am proud of the work that we are doing and I am proud that we are meeting our obligations under the Dublin regulations and the Dubs amendment. If she reads the Dubs amendment, she will understand that the number we bring across should be able to be accommodated by our local authorities.

I have been working very closely with local authorities. I met representatives of the local authorities at their summit on 13 October and I spoke at their conference on 3 November. We are working very closely with them to ensure that the children we bring across can be accommodated, and, as I have said, 118 local authorities are doing that.

I remind the hon. Lady that the children we do not bring across are not in Syria, but in France, which is a civilised country with a developed social system. Those children are being well supported and well looked after in France. The children about whom I am most concerned are those who are still in Syria—they are the ones we are endeavouring to help.

The reason why we do not consider children who arrived in Europe after 20 March is, simply that we do not want to introduce a pull factor that will incentivise parents to pay people traffickers to help their children make that hazardous journey across the Sahara, across the Mediterranean and, in many cases, end in a watery grave. That is why that date has been chosen and why we do not want to do anything to introduce a pull factor that would increase the number of people drowning in the Mediterranean or the Aegean.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) that I know that this Minister is absolutely committed to safeguarding and protecting unaccompanied refugee children.

I have constituents who have been working as volunteers in the Jungle, and they have contacted me—I have also contacted the Department about them—because they still have some concerns about the children who have been scattered across France. They are still in direct contact with those children by mobile phone. What would be the best way for my constituents to contact the Department to give real-time and up-to-date information about these vulnerable children who they believe have a right to come to the UK?

First, let me pay tribute to the non-governmental organisations that have been working in France. I am talking about not only the French NGOs such as France terre d’asile, but British charities that have been working in the camp, giving the children much-needed help, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is one of our partner organisations working in France and the wider region. Anyone who is in contact with a child in France should tell them to apply for asylum in France. That child’s claim will be considered and they will be looked after in France. One problem that we faced during the Calais camp situation was that the people traffickers and the organised criminals were advising people not to apply for asylum. That is the wrong advice to give. It is important that they do apply for asylum in France, which is a safe country for them to be in.

The debates that we had in this House on the Dubs amendment were among the most passionate that I have seen since my election 18 months ago. How section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 is now implemented is important to this House and deserves the greatest scrutiny. Surely the Government will agree to a proper debate in this Chamber on the content of the guidance that they have issued, because restrictions appearing in the guidance were certainly never contemplated during the Dubs debates.

My party shares the uneasiness about the exclusion of any children aged 16 and 17. Of course 16 and 17-year-olds can be, and are often, vulnerable. I ask the Minister is this a hard and fast rule, or will discretion be applied?

Similarly, we are very troubled with the restrictions on nationality. For example, the exclusion of Eritreans is utterly inappropriate given that Home Office decision making in this area has been torn to pieces in the tribunals. Surely, the grant rate will soon be back through the 75% threshold mentioned. Again, will some discretion be applied in this area? We share UNICEF’s concerns that eligibility is restricted to those

“at risk of sexual exploitation.”

I have not yet heard an explanation of why those at risk of trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery are not to be included as well. As the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, this guidance relates to children in France. What input did the French Government have in setting these criteria, and when will we see guidance for other countries, especially Greece and Italy?

Finally, in relation to children and the Immigration Act, may I ask when the Secretary of State intends to extend the scope of the scheme for transferring responsibility for relevant children in order to include Scotland, under section 73 of the Immigration Act?

May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman closely reads section 67, the Dubs amendment, as it makes it quite clear that it applies to refugee children? The reason why we are choosing these particular nationalities is that they are more likely to qualify for refugee status. He also talks about vulnerability. That is why we are addressing the issue of younger children. Indeed, we go further to make it clear that we must work with local authorities and, I am pleased to say, the devolved Governments around the country, to ensure that the capacity is there. This is all in the Dubs amendment, which is why we are discharging that amendment within not only the letter of the law, but the spirit as well.

In order to ensure that we are helping the most vulnerable children, can the Minister tell us whether those 300 who are coming over or have come over have undergone a proper age assessment and, if so, whether the results of that will be made available to Members of this House?

The more than 300 children who have arrived since 10 October include 60 girls. Two hundred of those children would qualify under Dublin, of whom half have been reunited with family members here in the UK, and the other 100 would be Dubs children. Of the further children being transferred, a greater proportion will be Dubs children. When the children arrive at the assessment centre in Croydon or elsewhere, they will be assessed for age. There will have been an initial assessment based on appearance and demeanour, but if necessary a further age assessment can be undertaken using a Merton compliant process, a well-established process that social workers are used to using. Two social workers would have to refer a child for that process.

The Minister will know that I have supported him and the Home Secretary in the important work they have done to bring the first few hundred children over from Calais and from France, but not on this. I remember the debates on the Dubs amendment and we did not discuss ruling out 13-year-old or 14-year-old Eritreans on an arbitrary basis. If this was simply priority guidance because we were going to prioritise the youngest children, people would understand, but why is he basing this on strict eligibility rules? I urge him to think again, turn this back into priority guidance, not eligibility guidance, and tell the House how many children he now thinks are going to come from France, because the number sounds considerably lower than the previous numbers that he and I discussed.

We certainly expect many hundreds more children to be brought across from France under the criteria that we have set out. I must repeat that the Dubs amendment specifically refers to refugee children. Many of the children who may currently be in France would not qualify for refugee status, which is why for the older children we have set that criterion. For the other children, the risk of sexual exploitation indicates that they are likely to be the most vulnerable, as are the youngest children. Again, the children that we are bringing across as part of the 20,000 from Syria are the most needy children, in my view.

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), after his earlier consternation and excitement, is now displaying veritably a Buddha-like calm.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Kingston Council on being the first council to call for every council to take 50 Syrian refugees and on already meeting its quota of vulnerable minors? Does not that compassionate attitude on the part of Kingston and other Conservative councils show how ill-judged and wrong the bombastic comments of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) were?

I congratulate not only Conservative councils throughout the country but, to be fair, councils of all political affiliations that have stepped up to the mark. It is great that they understand their responsibility. There is potential in the legislation to mandate councils to take children. That has not been the case and I do not believe it will be. I am pleased that so many local authorities have entered into the spirit of this great humanitarian need and helped with children up and down the country.

When this matter was last before the House, I asked the Home Secretary about reports that the number of Home Office officials who were dealing with bringing these children to the United Kingdom had been doubled from one to two. She was not able to tell me whether that was correct, so can the Minister say today how many Home Office officials are dealing with bringing these children to the United Kingdom?

We have dozens of Home Office officials on station. On the buses that were taking the children from the camp in Calais to the reception centres there were two Home Office officials, supported by interpreters and social workers. We have stepped up the numbers that we have operating in Italy and Greece. We currently have 70 officials who have been allocated to Greece and 54 are already on station there.

At the Dover and Kent frontline, our communities are looking after 750 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—a quarter of the total. That is five times more than the whole of Scotland and 12 times more than the whole of Wales, while Wakefield is looking after just 22. Is it not time for either mandatory dispersal or more help for Kent?

The national transfer scheme is working well. We have had 160 transfers. I do understand the pressure that Kent has been facing and I have met the leader of my hon. Friend’s county council to discuss that. In response to concerns from local government, we have increased the rates that we give for the children being looked after, in some cases by as much as 33%. Some councils have been very helpful in opening up their books. We believe now that the funding that we have made available is sufficient to cover their additional costs.

I welcome the Minister’s statement that he wants to increase support for Syrian children in Syria. May I press him on that? What specifically does he intend to urge on his ministerial colleagues in other Departments? Will he be urging aid to be transported into the berm—the no man’s land between Syria and Jordan? Will he be urging the reopening of the border at Jarablus? What more will he be doing to make sure that aid gets to Syrians, who are so desperate?

I was in Jordan last week, where I visited the Azraq refugee camp and met some of the people who had been transported from the berm. The Jordanian Government have concerns about some of the security aspects in the berm, particularly following the recent attack on their police forces. We continue to work with the Jordanians and others in the region to ensure that we can put people into a place of safety and, at the same time, maintain security. We have allocated £2.3 billion to assistance in the area, and I am proud of what we as a Government are doing as the second-biggest humanitarian donor in that region.

Running through the Home Office guidance on the interpretation of section 67 is the legal test of the best interests of the children. Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to that legal test, there is a wide-ranging assessment of the children, including their age, health needs, emotional needs, whether they have been victims of trafficking or trauma and any other family links? That is a reflection of the compassion and pragmatism that this Government are showing to these vulnerable children.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The priority is to ensure that the best interests of the children are served. We need to demonstrate to the French authorities that, by bringing these children across to the UK, their best interests will be served. A number of criteria, including the ones that she mentioned, are taken into account.

The Minister referred in his statement to the NGO work that was going on, particularly by volunteers, to help to resolve the issue. Have they reported to him any difficulty with the French authorities, as they try to ensure that children at risk are sheltered and helped as they try to make their way to the UK?

I have not received any concerns about the facilities available in the 60 or so welcome centres that have been set up around France. Indeed, the conditions there are unbelievably better than the dreadful conditions that many people had to endure in the camps. I am pleased that in the interim, while these children’s cases are being looked at and while we assess them against the Dubs and the Dublin criteria, they are in a place of safety and are being well looked after.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on the lead that this Government are taking in tackling the vile trade of people trafficking?

Yes, indeed. Much of that dreadful trade is fuelled by the fact that the people traffickers seem to have no regard for people’s safety. During the summer, I was in Nigeria talking to the authorities there, and they are very concerned about the way that people are putting their children’s lives at risk by putting them into the hands of people traffickers. If and when the children arrive in Europe, the nightmare continues, particularly when they are pressed into modern slavery, or even worse in the case of some of the girls.

In the run-up to the closure of the so-called Jungle camp at Calais, there were reports of a thousand or more people disappearing from the camp and melting into the countryside. What work is the Minister doing with his counterparts in France to ensure that when the French authorities identify people who melted away from the Calais jungle and who have vulnerable children, they too can be included in this programme?

I certainly received reports of some people leaving the camps as the clearance started. I also received reports of people coming back into the camps as they saw how that clearance was taking place. Indeed, some children who had been elsewhere in France arrived at the camps, hoping that they would be part of the scheme and could be relocated and considered under the Dubs and Dublin regulations. Unfortunately, those late arrivals were not considered in the same way. The advice that we always give to people is to claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach, and if not so, then to claim asylum in France, where they can be adequately processed.

May I commend the Minister for the evidence he gave to the International Development Committee this week? Opposition parties might benefit from reading it, because he was very open and honest about what is happening. Will he confirm that any action taken by the Home Office in France must be approved by the French? Is it right that, until relatively recently, the French did not want Britain to take any children under the Dubs amendment for fear of creating a pull factor?

I have to say that the French have been excellent partners in working through this. Of course, it was very difficult while the children were in the camp, and the clearance of the camp has been the opportunity we were all waiting for to make sure that those children who could be looked after and considered for relocation to the UK could be considered. I am full of admiration for the way that the French have worked with us in partnership, and I hope and feel sure that the children who are not coming to the UK will have a long and successful life in France, should their asylum claims be granted.

What provision is being made for counselling services for children who have experienced trauma and perhaps seen and experienced things that our own children have not?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: many of these children have experienced traumatic situations, not only perhaps in their host country, but certainly as part of their journey and their life in the camp. On 1 November, my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families and I issued a joint written ministerial statement on the safeguarding strategy for these children. The strategy includes a number of measures, including transfer procedures, safeguarding for family reunion, the information given to these children and revising the statutory guidance under the Dublin III arrangements. We will give regular updates to right hon. and hon. Members on how that is working out.

Does my hon. Friend think it extraordinary that, for months, the Labour party has not had a shadow Immigration Minister?

I think that Labour has had a number of problems in that regard, but I will not revisit those issues.

As a proud city of sanctuary, Sheffield is doing everything it can to house these very vulnerable children, but it is being held up by Home Office incompetence around the central assessment process. Will the Minister ensure that funding is released urgently to all local authorities and that concerns around the central assessment process are addressed?

We certainly have addressed the funding issues. As I pointed out, there have been considerable increases. For example, children under the age of 16 will receive a 20% increase—that is £114 a day. The 16 and 17-year-olds will receive £91 a day. That is in response to the concerns raised by local authorities about the funding we have given. We are working with the Local Government Association, and we are content that the funding is appropriate to the expenditure authorities are being asked to make.

I was pleased to hear the Minister’s comments about the welcome centres in France. It cannot be in the interests of France, the UK or future refugees that the Calais Jungle and the dreadful conditions there get re-established. Does he believe that that can be prevented?

Certainly, the French are absolutely determined that new camps will not spring up. As we saw, the conditions in the Jungle, and previously in Sangatte, are not ones that anybody should be expected to live in. The French do, I believe, have adequate resource to enable people who claim asylum to be looked after properly—particularly the children.

My local authority, Hammersmith and Fulham, which has taken a lead on this, has not received the number of children it either offered to take or was told by the Home Office it would receive, because the Government have dragged their feet. Can the Minister give us some idea of how quickly assessments will take place of the children who are now dispersed across France, so that they can come here, because there are places for them to go to?

It is great to know that there are places available. We must not forget that, despite the fact we have had around 318 children from France, in the year to June 2016, we had 3,472 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK by other means. A lot of that has meant that local authorities, particularly in the areas where these children arrive—in the south-east, in particular—have had to rise to that challenge. I am pleased that we have made 160 transfers under the national transfer scheme. I know that local authorities that have capacity will use it as they see fit.

The Minister will be aware that, last week, the Public Accounts Committee had a very interesting discussion about the support the Government have been offering as part of the relocation programme and about its effectiveness, and the shadow Minister might benefit from looking at that. Yesterday, a constituent emailed me offering to provide a home—as has the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—to relocate a child. What work is the Home Office doing to make sure that such offers are taken up?

Specifically, we have launched the community sponsorship scheme. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury launched it at Lambeth Palace—indeed, two Syrian families currently reside there. The community sponsorship scheme is more about local community groups working together with their local authorities to make sure people can be looked after than about people going into somebody’s spare bedroom. If those people who wish to help could become engaged with, perhaps, a faith group or another group in their area, I am sure that they would be able to put forward a bid under the community sponsorship scheme.

Citizens UK has warned that the new guidelines make it impossible for the Government to fulfil their promise to take half the unaccompanied children from the former camp. Is it correct that that promise will be met in full? If not, what proportion of those children do the Government now expect to take into this country?

As I pointed out, we are assessing children against the criteria we have laid out, and we expect to bring several hundred more children here, as is our responsibility under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016.

Contrary to the bluster from the Opposition Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Minister is working tirelessly on this issue, as indeed did his predecessor. Knowing that we have a severe lack of carers, and particularly foster carers, in our area of Yorkshire, will my hon. Friend explain what the Government are doing to ensure that there is a fair distribution of caring responsibilities for unaccompanied children right across the UK?

Some of the bluster we have heard from the Opposition Front Bench is not reflected in the very practical and constructive way that Labour local authorities have been working up and down the country. One aspect of the safeguarding strategy we launched on 1 November was, indeed, looking at the demand for foster care and its availability. Many local authorities have raised concerns that they do not have sufficient capacity for fostering, and they have had to place children out of area, which has incurred additional costs, particularly if agencies are being used. We do need to improve the capacity for fostering, and I would say to anybody out in the country who fancies a career in fostering that it is a very rewarding career and one we would be very pleased to see more people stepping forward to take up.

Can the Minister explain how he determines which children are at risk of sexual exploitation? What criteria are used? Who does the assessment? How confident is he about its reliability? I should have thought that any of the children we are discussing today would be at risk of sexual exploitation.

The main criterion we would look at is gender, as we know that girls are more likely to be victims of sexual exploitation, but if any other individuals were in that category, they would also be considered.

How many criminal gangs that have been exploiting these young people in Calais have been stopped due to our co-operation with France? What have we learned from those arrests in terms of the future safety of our borders?

There have been a number of interceptions in France of these criminal gangs, and I am pleased to say that the number of interceptions has increased. Indeed, we have also had arrests in the United Kingdom, some of which have come to court. This is something we are very determined to address. These criminal gangs profit from people’s misery, and they must be prevented from doing so.

Amnesty International has found that children as young as 16 have been indefinitely conscripted into the army in Eritrea. I would gently suggest to the Minister that that is not a pull factor in terms of the attractiveness of the United Kingdom, so will he urgently review the arbitrary decision to exclude Eritreans over the age of 12 from these criteria?

I have already mentioned the criteria we use, but I am well aware of the conscription situation. A number of EU countries, as well as our Home Office officials, continue to look at that situation, which is not a good one, in Eritrea.

I add my thanks to the Minister for his statement and update. I also echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), who is no longer in her place, and recommend that people read the Minister’s evidence to the International Development Committee yesterday. In working closely with the French to accelerate the process of identifying and bringing eligible children to the UK, will he confirm that the appropriate security checks will continue to be undertaken?

The assessment that takes place when children are processed includes a security assessment. Indeed, in terms of the children and families who we are bringing across from Syria, that is a central part of what we do to ensure that we are kept safe, while addressing the real humanitarian need in the region.

Will the Minister re-explain the rationale about not accepting unaccompanied 16 and 17-year-olds under Dubs? Will he reassure us that that is not a reaction to his Back Benchers making outrageous demands for teeth examinations?

The criteria that we use look particularly at vulnerability. In terms of sexual exploitation, that is gender-neutral. People are referred to us by the French, and their process is gender-neutral as well.