Thursday 22 February 2018
[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
Refugee Children: Family Reunion in the UK
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reunion for refugee children with family in the UK.
I am grateful to colleagues for joining me this Thursday afternoon to discuss issues affecting some of the most vulnerable people on our planet. I also thank you, Dame Cheryl, for permitting me to make a personal comment before I turn to the main thrust of my speech.
I would like to apologise to this House for the inappropriate words that I used in a speech in Edinburgh at a Labour event to mark Burns night. I unreservedly apologise for the offence caused. I used inappropriate and offensive words, and I was wrong to do so. I will be working to restore my relationship with the communities concerned over the coming months, making a positive change, and to ensure that society is as tolerant and inclusive as it should be. Thank you for letting me make that apology, Dame Cheryl.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I want to mention the Members who have sponsored and supported this debate: the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for North Down (Lady Hermon), my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), my hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) and for Easington (Grahame Morris), the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). They represent all parts of our United Kingdom, and that is evidence of the importance of this issue. I thank all the humanitarian and international development fields for their support in preparing this brief.
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and our computer and television screens, our world gets smaller every day. What happens in far-flung parts of the world affects us all; it is made clear and obvious to us and it provides us with a moral responsibility to act. Few people in my constituency, Scotland or indeed the rest of the United Kingdom can say that they have not seen or been affected by the humanitarian crisis that blights our world today.
Some of the context of this debate is very scary. It is criminal that more than half of the 22.5 million refugees across the world are children. In 2010-11, there were about 66,000 children moving across borders. Five years later there was a fivefold increase. At least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were registered moving across borders in more than 80 countries during 2015-16.
In a debate in the main Chamber on refugees and human rights on 24 January 2018, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), said:
“Our global leadership is needed now more than ever, not least because the five challenges that currently leave 65 million people in our world internally displaced or as refugees are getting only worse.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 285.]
There are challenges at home, in all communities across the United Kingdom, but there are challenges abroad too, which the shadow Foreign Secretary went on to highlight in that debate and we all know very well.
On 15 December 2017, the noble Baroness Trafford, Minister of State at the Home Office, announced that the Home Office is currently considering a new resettlement and asylum strategy. The Government say that the new strategy will make “improvements” and “changes” to the United Kingdom’s policies on refugee family reunification.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an urgent need to amend the UK’s immigration rules on refugee family reunion, to reduce the dangerous journeys that many refugees are forced to take and to provide safe and legal routes for vulnerable children to reach family members in the UK? That has unfortunately been left out of the upcoming private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on refugee family reunion, and that omission ought surely to be rectified urgently.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate, which was long overdue. To follow on from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), the present system is purely bureaucratic and has to be broadened out, so any review should look at that and make the rules a lot simpler and easier. More important is the fact that legal aid has been stopped since 2013. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) agree that that is significant?
I agree and will ask the Minister about that at the end of my speech.
Many Members across this House will agree that improvements need to be made to the way in which we support refugees and honour our responsibilities to the most vulnerable. I pay tribute to the important speech given yesterday by the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), on how we can provide the support required by those in need. For me, as a human and an elected representative, the fact that children are still being forced to take life-threatening and dangerous journeys to their families in the United Kingdom is unforgivable and heartbreaking.
Yes. That is the reason we see these images on TV. These kids do not want to do it; they are running scared and they are walking millions of miles.
The European Union’s Dublin III regulation determines which EU state decides a person’s asylum application. Under the Dublin III regulation, an unaccompanied child who has made an asylum application has the right to have their application transferred to another EU state where they have a relative. It is a way of reuniting children with their families in the United Kingdom, and that is the right thing to do. I note the agreements signed between the French and British Governments to speed up the Dublin III transfers. That seeks to help children reach the safety of their families in the UK, which is welcome and should be a given. They should not have been forced to take those journeys in the first place.
My hon. Friend will remember that the Conservative party used to be known as the party of the family. In autumn 2017, some 52 of its peers and MPs produced “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families” and called for leadership from Government. Does he agree that should apply to child refugees who risk the perilous journey across Europe?
Yes, I agree. That is the whole point of what we are trying to achieve.
Many Members will remember the horrific and devastating image of that lifeless little boy, Alan Kurdi. He was a child, three years old, who was found lying down on a beach in Turkey. Why? Because he was attempting to reach Greece. Why? Because he was trying to be part of the European Union. He was trying to reach a safe and secure home. This was in the 21st century; it should shame and disgrace us all.
The decision of the British people in 2016 to leave the European Union is one that I regret, but I respect it none the less. I mention it because our membership encouraged us to play a role, on a pan-European level, in doing the right thing. I do not want us to stop doing the right thing when we leave the EU. It is important to note that the Government’s announcement of a new strategy comes after an amendment in Committee to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that sought to ensure that refugee children could continue to be reunited with their families after we leave the European Union. For me, that is a given.
Even if we leave the European Union on the Government’s own terms, we could still be covered under Dublin III. Under Dublin III and through the work that Lord Dubs has done, we have committed to taking 480 children. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are not bringing those children over quickly enough, and that for a country of nearly 70 million people, 480 children is just not enough?
I respect those words, and that is exactly my fear—that if we leave the EU, we will forget that we still have a job to do as world leaders. I am an internationalist. The border does not stop at Carlisle for me, and it does not stop at Calais. I do not want us to become little Britain over the coming years, which is why that role is important.
I would like to share a brief story from back home in North Lanarkshire. In 2015, before I became an MP, my friend Angela Feeney and her daughter Maria were at home, drinking a glass of wine and watching the horrific news of the refugee crisis unfold on the TV. Sitting there, they decided to do something; they decided to be good citizens and act. Their original idea was to fill a car with clothes and drive from Wishaw to Calais to make a small contribution to the humanitarian effort. I was then the secretary of the North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council, and the Feeneys asked me for help and support for collections for their car and covering costs.
Soon after Alan Kurdi was found—the little boy on the beach—the original plan of taking a carload was no longer possible. By the time the news of little Alan had spread, interest was so great that we ended up sending trucks with two full warehouses’ worth of clothes and other necessary things, and thousands of pounds in donations, which were sent to people not just in Calais but around the world. I thank people in Scotland once again for the passion and the commitment that they showed to the Wishaw to Calais appeal.
I have some specific questions for the Minister to answer when she winds up this debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, for taking my intervention before he moves on to his questions, and for his understanding: I have a flight north tonight, so I cannot stay for the whole debate, which is why I cannot give a speech. Does he agree that despite everything he has said so far, we should, where possible, encourage refugee children to have a better environment in their home countries to prevent them even having to consider the dangerous trek into Europe?
I think that every child wants to stay in their homeland. I was proud to be born and bred in my community, and to become a councillor, because I am proud of my own land. Unfortunately, we have wars in this world, which involve bombs and bullets that those children have to dodge, which is why they run. Those children want to stay in their own homeland, as do their parents, but unfortunately the world that we live in, in 2018, has become so dangerous that those children and their parents must seek safety. I wish that we could sort the world’s peace tomorrow, so that everyone could live on this planet and share it as we should do.
Does the Minister agree that by amending our immigration rules to include an extended definition of family, as defined by Dublin III, we can ensure that our response to the crisis focuses on our responsibility to protect vulnerable children? Secondly, will she review the current policies on family reunion and commit to updating the House on what action will be taken? Thirdly, what plans do the Government have to reinstate legal aid for refugee family reunion cases? Lastly, does she agree that by taking action we can reunite vulnerable children with family members and stop their abuse by and reliance on smugglers and traffickers?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. On the difficulty of the procedures involved in refugee family cases, is he as appalled as I am that legal aid has not been available for such cases since 2012? Does he agree that without legal aid assistance, applicants rarely know what evidence is required, and that such evidence is key to determining refusal of applications and appeals?
Yes. Legal aid is one of the questions to which I would like to hear an answer. It is so important to refugees and families.
We have gathered to discuss how to play our role on the international stage, be good citizens as a country and ensure that we do our part to save lives. As scripture tells us, let us not walk by on the other side. If the Government make the right changes to the immigration rules, we can play a role in reducing the number of dangerous journeys taken by children and—this is key—prevent needless and tragic deaths. We have a moral duty to allow children to apply for family reunification from some of the most dangerous parts of the world. We can and should work to ensure that we create a safe and legal route for vulnerable children to reach the shores of United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing it. I want to speak in the debate on cancer strategy in the main Chamber, so I am grateful to you for calling me early, Dame Cheryl, and I hope you will forgive me for not being able to stay until the end.
I will not repeat the arguments already made, as I want to keep my remarks brief, but we are considering important issues. Refugees who have already been granted asylum in the United Kingdom do not have the right to offer siblings under 18 the opportunity to come to the UK. Many of us in this House—Members from all parties, I believe—think that that makes no sense. I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the points that my hon. Friend has made.
A 16 or 17-year-old trapped in Aleppo should have the right to come live with an older sibling who has already been granted asylum in Britain. The 2016 report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found that such applications are usually rejected out of hand, and that families must appeal or re-submit their applications for such cases. That kind of bureaucracy can be catastrophic for children left in war zones, trapped in conflict areas where they are at risk of barrel bombs, Daesh terror attacks and so on. Many children are being denied the right to basic family life. I put it to hon. Members that that does not chime with the values that we in this Parliament and this country uphold. The rules clearly need to be amended to make it easier for children to find a safe place to be reunited with their loved ones. We already know that in the chaos of a war zone, it is all the more likely that families will be split up or separated.
Another serious concern is the legal aid situation, which was alluded to by my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. I hope the Minister will give that careful thought. Legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunions since 2012, despite the fact that such cases are usually incredibly complex. Without legal aid, many applicants are left in the dark, not knowing what evidence is needed or how to collate it, so they have little or no chance of effecting family reunion. Surely it is time to reinstate legal aid.
I have a case in my constituency of two refugee brothers who are trying to get their other brother to the UK from a refugee camp in Turkey. They are having to rely on charity, so they are literally shaking buckets to raise enough money to get solicitors. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation we face in Britain, in which those children have to rely on charity, is disgraceful, and that the Government should step in to rectify that immediately?
I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful example—there are many others. The current situation, in which these families are denied access to justice, shames us. To deny children and families who have already faced immense risks and challenges the opportunity of family reunion and legal aid is an appalling indictment of the UK Government, and of us all as parliamentarians.
Legal aid, or its absence, has the power to change lives, for the better or for the worse. It has the potential to keep families together under the most trying circumstances. These restrictive rules do not just affect vulnerable people’s lives, but can make the huge difference between safety and security on one hand, and danger, war and risk to life and limb on the other. It is essential that the Minister looks at the matter.
The current situation forces many people trapped in war zones to take repeated risks to cross borders to reach British embassies. We have seen ample pictorial evidence of that. Surely it is in children’s best interests to be reunited with family members and to be given safe and legal routes to effect that family reunion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill suggested. The rules are most damaging to the most vulnerable people who are left behind in war zones, and to people who have been granted asylum but have to go through the heartbreak and trauma of not being reunited with family members.
I am proud that this country has a terrific record of helping refugees and people who come to our constituencies. Our record of welcoming refugee families and encouraging them to thrive goes back to before the second world war. Lord Dubs is a notable example.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point: delaying family reunion creates all sorts of other problems. People who arrive on our shores—who are often fleeing persecution—become valued members of our communities and often work in public service, like Lord Dubs. They set up small businesses and take on important roles in the community. They are a real asset in terms of adding value.
We must act to ensure that families can be reunited. Parliament and Government should not remain passive and allow refugee families to remain divided. I welcome my party’s recent announcement that puts the humanity of migrants and the importance of family life at the heart of our immigration policy, and our pledge to follow a humanistic approach to immigration policy. That is an expression of our very best values as a nation, and a fulfilment of our duties to the international community.
I pleased to say that I am a proud internationalist, but whether someone is an internationalist or not, they have an obligation to fight for a fairer system. I am proud that my party is championing refugees who are threatened by war, and that it is working to give vulnerable people a chance. I hope we can reform the rules, so that child refugees have a proper chance of being reunited with their families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this significant and timely debate and on his excellent speech. I also thank the many constituents who emailed me in the run up to this debate.
The global refugee crisis has displaced a record 65 million people—the entire population of the UK—from their homes; they are fleeing conflict, persecution and the effects of climate change. I am proud that Scotland has a long history of welcoming refugees from all over the world. Over the past two years, communities across Scotland have demonstrated their compassion and understanding as we welcomed more than 2,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom have settled in my constituency.
I will start positively. It is welcome progress that last month, the UK Government announced several new measures to help child refugees in Europe to come to the UK safely and much more quickly. Crucially, they extended the cut-off date for children who are eligible for transfer under the Dubs amendment, and we welcome that—it is something that the Scottish National party has long been calling for. It will ensure that many more lone children, stranded in appalling conditions, can reach the safety of the UK, but more can still be done.
As we sadly leave the EU, the UK will no longer be signed up to the Dublin III regulations, as we have heard, which are a key route for child refugees to reunite with family members elsewhere in Europe. There is a risk that children will have to rely solely on the UK’s far more restrictive immigration rules, which allow them to reunite only with their parents. That forces children to make the dangerous journey to Europe to try to reach their families. According to the International Organisation for Migration, in 2017 alone, more than 3,000 people died by drowning while trying to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, which should be a shame on all of us.
Post Brexit, the UK Government must commit to guaranteeing the same rights for children in Europe as currently exist under the Dublin III regulations. As the UK seeks to clarify its immigration rules, there is an opportunity to amend the UK’s restrictive and unfair refugee laws. The UK allows adult refugees to apply only for their spouses and dependent children under 18 to join them, which means that grandparents, parents, siblings and children above the age of 17 are prevented from coming to the UK to join them in starting a new life. Similarly, child refugees in the UK are not allowed to sponsor their parents to join them here. Families are simply being torn apart.
Additionally, legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunions since 2012, which makes it even more difficult for families to reunite, as other hon. Members have mentioned. A recent study by the Refugee Council and Oxfam found that reuniting refugee families gives them the best chance of living settled and fulfilling lives, but that denying them the chance to restore their family ties condemns them to a future of anguish and guilt.
That report coincides with the launch of the “Families Together” campaign, which calls for changes to the rules on refugee family reunions and has support from many non-governmental organisations. Those NGOs also back the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) to support the campaign. The Bill will return to Parliament on 16 March for Second Reading, which will undoubtedly give Parliament the chance to debate and address the flaws in the system, and to stop treating refugee family reunion as an immigration issue, rather than a protection issue. I hope that hon. Members across the political divide, and all hon. Members present, will attend the debate and join us on that. I also urge the Minister in the strongest terms to support the Bill.
I call on the Minister to give child refugees in the UK the right to sponsor their close family, and to expand the definition of who qualifies as family, so that young people who have turned 18 and elderly parents can live in safety with their families in the UK. The UK Government must stop thinking in terms of targets, quotas and rules, and start thinking of individuals and families, as we all do in our own lives. It is time to introduce some humanity into the system, so that these families can rebuild their lives together. Helping mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who have been torn apart, who have lost everything and who have experienced so much pain is simply the right thing to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I am delighted that this subject has come up for debate.
Imagine having to say goodbye to your child, or finding yourself suddenly separated from them without knowing what will happen to them, whether anyone will look after them or whether they will find the rest of your family, if you still have one. That is the situation facing parents among the 22 million refugees across the world. Families are fleeing war or persecution, looking for nothing more than safety and somewhere to live together in peace. Recently, I visited the Red Cross in Scotland and met families who came to this country looking for that very peace and sanctuary. They are now living together in Scotland and making a valuable contribution to their communities. However, we know that it is not the same for all families; for many, things have become impossible.
As a nation, we have been moved by photographs such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney)—pictures of children who have lost their lives or been orphaned because of the conflict in Syria. In the Holocaust Memorial Day debate, we heard moving stories from hon. Members about the flight of their families from Nazi persecution and the sanctuary they found here, yet our approach to reuniting refugee families and immigration procedures is one that I, for one, find depressing. What happened to our humanity, our open arms and our desire to give children the best start in life, regardless of geography?
As we have heard, the EU’s Dublin III regulation determines which EU state decides a person’s asylum application. In 2016, under the regulation’s criteria, 700 children were transferred from other European countries to join family members in the UK, but none of us knows what the situation will be after Brexit. We need the UK Government to improve the system to make it easier for children to find their families. They need to amend the immigration rules on refugee family reunions to make it easier for close family members—siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles—with refugee or humanitarian protection status to sponsor children in their family to join them in the UK. They also need to lessen the conditions that must be met by non-refugee sponsors, and help with legal aid for refugee family reunions.
All parents, especially single parents, know that horrible feeling that can creep up on us in the middle of the night. It hits us when someone in our family dies or when we sit watching the evening news and see pictures of families fleeing, children separated from their parents and empty, hopeless faces staring out of the screen. We think, “Who would look after my child if something happened?” I think about it even though my daughter is now an adult. When I do, I am grateful that I have a family, so there are people who will love and look after her. Surely that is what we all want for our children, and surely we should want our Government to do their best to provide that sanctuary for every child.
There are seven refugee families in Bedford as part of the five-year Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement programme, but Bedford has pledged to take 20. More needs to be done to reunite families, but complex family reunion rules and ineffective implementation are an obstacle to the most vulnerable children reaching the safety of their families. Unaccompanied migrant children are highly vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to their plight.
Some 95% of applicants waiting to join family members in the UK through refugee family reunion are women and children. Children have a right to family life and family unity under the European convention on human rights, but in the UK, there is no right for children to sponsor their parents to join them; child refugees can apply for family reunion only outside the immigration rules. The cost of accessing legal advice puts that outside the reach of too many people in desperate need. Refugee family reunion cases should be brought back within the scope of civil legal aid in England and Wales. Nobody decides to leave their family without good cause. These are matters of life and death.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs has criticised the logic that says that a child who has come from a place to which it is unsafe to return cannot bring their parents here, whereas an adult refugee is entitled to bring their children here. These children have fled war, persecution and torture, and have gone through terrible journeys to reach sanctuary in the UK. Surely it is not too much to ask that they be reunited quickly with their families. “Refugees Welcome?”, the brilliant report published by the all-party group on refugees, found that refugee children who are unable to be joined by even their closest relatives really struggle to integrate.
Nobody in this Chamber underestimates the scale of the problem. I am sure we all agree that there are no easy answers, but these children are in dire peril. The Government’s response to the crisis has been modest in comparison with that of other countries. It has been reactive, not proactive, and it simply is not good enough. Last month’s agreement with France to speed up Dublin III transfers is welcome, but children should not have to make dangerous journeys to reach their families in the first place. We must allow them safe legal passage, and the ability to apply for family reunification more easily from their country of origin, before we see more shocking pictures of dead children washed up on the beaches of Europe. I hope that we do not have to look back at those horrific pictures in 10 years’ time and wonder where our humanity was, and why we did not do more to help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) on his remarks. We are here because we want to uphold human rights, but we must also recognise that there are real hurdles and that the system needs to be unclogged. I trust that the Minister will apply practical common sense today.
Recently, children from Bootham School in York urged me to speak in this debate. One wrote:
“I can’t imagine a world without my little brother. He is 5 years old. He was called names and started crying, so I ran to him. I held him as he cried and told him I loved him. That incident was name calling, not having to flee your home and cross the sea on a tiny boat that may kill you and rip you from your family at the same time. Rachael please don’t let other people’s brothers cry alone. Please help loving families get back together.”
Children really get this agenda, and I trust that we will take it to heart, too. As another child said:
“All these people are just like us and they don’t deserve what has happened to them. They should have the right to live in safety and comfort like us and it is inhumane to deny them this.”
I have heard so many moving stories from children, because families are families the world over. It is so important that we understand the love, concern and need to be together that these families have, too. As another child said,
“some have seen things that no one should ever see, some have experienced things that none of us can imagine”—
first the trauma, then the separation. Things must change.
I have heard so many moving stories from constituents, too. They have described unnecessary delays, bureaucracy and requests going back and forth for completely irrelevant information. For instance, one constituent had to prove his religious faith when it had nothing to do with his case. Another had to produce samples of his DNA and his children’s DNA to prove that he was their father. Of course he was the father, but what about his dignity?
Immigration services have to up their game. We cannot have these delays, because every single delay increases the risk, particularly for young and vulnerable people. Today I heard from a constituent who is just 17 years old, whose brother is just 14 and is in Sicily, on his own and at risk. We need to be able to resolve these problems quickly and ensure that the wider family can be involved and that older children, who are incredibly vulnerable in this situation, are brought to a place of safety with other family members here in the UK.
Of course, as we have heard, legal aid needs to be extended to address this complex area of law—nothing less will do. We need to fast-track this matter, to ensure that we address these people’s needs.
I also want to raise with the Minister the issue of families once they come to the UK, which I have heard about from constituents in York. One constituent’s children were in Germany, where they had been placed, and he just wanted to be in the same place as them. He did not mind whether they came to the UK or he went to Germany; he just wanted to be in the same place as them. It is really important that we facilitate that.
We also need to make sure that the needs of families are addressed here. I have heard a story of a constituent who had to live with his family of three children, two of whom were teenagers, in a single converted garage in York. The council did not get involved for two months and then said that the garage was unsuitable and moved them to a homeless hostel. That is unacceptable. There was also a family who had to share a room in a house, and all the facilities, with four other occupants. Such overcrowding is unacceptable. We are talking about people who are fragile and broken, and they should not be crushed by our local authorities. The Government must intervene and ensure that no further harm is done.
I am proud that York is the first human rights city in the UK and that we have great support from York City of Sanctuary and Refugee Action York. We must remember, as one child said to me:
“We are all humans and we all deserve to be with our living families, no matter who we are or where we have come from.”
This Government have a responsibility to act. I am sure the Minister has heard these stories today and that she will take action.
I will endeavour to be brief, particularly as I hope to speak in the next debate on child poverty in London.
I begin by referring to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On 4 September last year, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who is present for this debate, and the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), I went with Safe Passage UK to the Calais Jungle camp, or rather what remains of it. I had been there once before, at the very beginning of 2016, when it was in full swing, as it were. Although there are substantially fewer refugees there now, because of the demolition and the behaviour of the French authorities, the conditions are substantially worse, particularly for the hundreds of young people who are there. That is partly because of the violence being shown to them and partly because any recourse to the authorities has been moved hundreds of kilometres away, so that even those who have the right to apply under Dublin III are unable to do so. Of course, that means that there is far more risk of them risking very dangerous ways to reach the UK, such as under lorries or on the rail tracks.
I absolutely agree. I feel for all the refugees in that situation, but particularly for children and those who have a legal right—whether they are Dubs children or Dublin III children—to be in the UK. Frankly, it is shameful that the Government did not honour their promise to Lord Dubs. Lord Dubs is a constituent of mine and last month I went with him to the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration here in Westminster—of course, he came to the UK on the Kindertransport—and we met other survivors. I think that he is puzzled, as well as horrified, that we are unable to show to children who are being persecuted abroad now the charity that we showed in much more difficult times in the 1930s.
I will make two specific points. When we returned from that most recent trip to Calais, I asked the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union what would happen if we leave the EU and the Dublin III regulations fall away. I asked him what the Government intend to replace them with, whether they would replicate them in the immigration rules, and whether they would apply—somewhat anomalously—just to the EU27 countries or more generally. I received what I thought was quite a helpful response at the time, which was 5 September last year. We know that the immigration Bill is delayed, but the Secretary of State said that that issue is
“precisely the sort of thing that that Bill should address. A more general point I made to the European Commission negotiators…is that a legal requirement is not the only reason for doing things. We are a country with a strong tradition of tolerance and generosity, and if anything, I expect that to grow after we leave, not diminish.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 64.]
Some months on, I wonder whether the Minister for Immigration is able to update us today on the Government’s current thinking on that specific issue. In other words, will there be what I think all Members taking part in this debate would like to see, which is an end to anomalies where there are clearly people in this country who can care for children but who are not their parents? They might be their grandparents, uncles or aunts. A very good example is given in the case studies provided to us by the NGOs: despite being a refugee herself, a grandmother is able to be a sponsor but does not have the necessary finances, and there is an uncle who is a British citizen and does have the necessary finances, but so many hoops have to be jumped through in order to achieve a resolution.
I will conclude by repeating what a number of colleagues have said about legal aid. I had the dubious privilege of leading for the Opposition on the Committee considering the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which stripped out so much of our legal aid system. The LASPO review is going on as we speak and is due to report soon. I wish that the whole of that iniquitous Act could be swept away and that we could go back to there being an entitlement to legal aid, which was then qualified, rather than simply having a very frugal approach of giving legal aid in only a few cases. I am sure that this Government are not going to do that, but I have some hope that they will genuinely review LASPO and correct some anomalies—and this issue is clearly an anomaly.
The people we are talking about cannot use the legal system, because it is complex and, as has been said many times by senior members of the judiciary, simply having the right to go to court is not enough unless someone has the ability to do so as well, and in many cases that means having a lawyer.
Family bonds are one of the things that give our lives meaning. My family are the most important people in my life and I do not know what I would do without them, and I am delighted that I also have a new niece or nephew on the way. I know that every hon. Member present feels exactly the same way about their family. Yet there are some people out in the world who, although they share those feelings too, are not able to be with their families today. The sad reality is that far too many people in this world are stranded by war, oppressed by circumstances or persecuted either for what they believe or for who they are. It is no wonder that those people choose to flee such conditions and seek a better life, but the horrific side-effect is that families are torn apart.
I know what I would do in those circumstances: I would do anything to ensure that my children were safe—and yes, that would mean maybe even sending them to a different country. I would want the Government of that country to show some humanity and some compassion, and allow us to be reunited. If hon. Members agree that that is what they would do, too, why is it not what we would want for other people?
I am delighted that in Hull there are people who care enough about those in need to roll up their sleeves and volunteer to help refugees who have come to this country. In particular, I am thinking about organisations such as Hull Help for Refugees and Open Doors Hull, which I visited before Christmas. Both organisations do amazing work. However, for all the fantastic work those brilliant organisations do, it is the Government and the Government alone who can extend the rights of reunification so that child refugees can bring their parents to the UK and resume their family life.
I will end by quoting a poem, “Human Family”, by one of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou:
“The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white…
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.”
If that is true and if in their situation we too would like to be reunited with our children, then we as Members of Parliament must act to give those who are currently refugees the rights that we ourselves would like, because we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. This is the biggest humanitarian crisis on record, and the response to that challenge has to meet the severity of the situation in the times in which we live. When a family decides to flee a country because of danger to life, the process is neither simple nor straightforward. During that period of chaotic turmoil, lives are turned upside down and children are often separated from their parents, leaving them in a vulnerable position that no child should be in.
The UK Government’s approach thus far to family reunification is overly complex and bureaucratic, and it keeps families apart. I agree with Refugee Action that refugee family reunion rules should be expanded to cover all relationships where the applicants are dependent on the sponsor. In times of war, it is sadly to be expected that when the parents of a family die, the oldest sibling will be responsible for looking after their younger sisters and brothers, but the restrictive UK approach prevents the oldest sibling from being covered by the refugee family reunion rules. The Government may argue that they have immigration rules that may help, but they fail to mention that the system is costly, complex and overly bureaucratic—a hurdle that is far too great for many refugees to overcome. The financial requirements are prohibitive and were made worse by the Tories removing legal aid for family reunion applications back in 2013.
The private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) would reintroduce legal aid for those looking to bring their families together. That is not just morally right; it is an absolute moral imperative. The Scottish Government recognise that for refugees, leaving home is not a choice but a necessity to protect them from violence and death. Our recently published “New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy”, which has been endorsed by the UN, sets out how Scotland can continue to help refuges to rebuild their lives. However, our attempts are hampered when families are not allowed to be reunited.
This issue unites the Scottish National party and Labour in Scotland, and I am very proud that my local authority, under both parties, has welcomed 28 Syrian families to Renfrewshire. Kassem Ayash, his wife Hiba and their young daughter Hajar arrived in Paisley in late 2015 from a camp in Jordan, and I am pleased to say that they have since had a son, Abdulraham, born in Scotland. However, Kassem’s mother and father and seven siblings are all still in Jordan, and he is not sure he will ever see them again. He said:
“They are all still there so far away. We miss them very much.”
Speaking with tears in his eyes, Kassem said the welcome he and his family received in Paisley was beyond anything he could have hoped for. He said:
“Someone from the council said to me, ‘If I could change the weather for you, I would.’”
I grant that the weather is not grand. He went on:
“That sentence was enough, that said it all to me…The welcome from everyone has been amazing. Everyone has been so kind and understanding. We have seen no discrimination from anyone, just love and understanding.”
We can and must do better. In a few weeks’ time, we can put our warm words into action. My hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill is a fantastic opportunity to ensure we help meet the calls made on us as a result of the biggest humanitarian crisis. All we have to do is turn up and vote on 16 March.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this debate, and I thank my colleagues for their remarks. The migration crisis is a great test of our values as a nation. It shines a light on the actions, not the words, of our politicians. Britain has much to be proud of in the realm of international development, but when it comes to unaccompanied child refugees, we are being found wanting. It is not an immigration issue; it is an issue of our shared humanity. At the moment, we are not at our best, and we need to be.
The changes to the immigration rules, particularly those affecting unaccompanied child refugees, need to be accelerated. The approach is not working. I welcome the changes announced in the Sandhurst treaty, but since that treaty was signed, how many more children have been brought forward? How much more money and funding has been allocated to supporting these unaccompanied child refugees? Will the Minister reassure us—so many people out there do not know the answer to this—on whether unaccompanied child refugees are included in the immigration targets? We should ensure that young people fleeing conflict and poverty are not counted for political purposes, or for the purposes of an immigration target; that would send the strong message from this House that those young people matter as individuals, not as a statistic.
I was pleased to join my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) in Calais. I saw the shocking conditions those young people were in. I want to know that each and every time we stand up, we move a little closer to improving the lives of those kids. Some of the images I saw and stories I heard still haunt me. A stat from UNICEF shows that a majority of those young people were sexually abused on their way to Calais. That still really angers me. What additional help are we giving to those children whom we are accepting to deal with the sexual assaults and abuse they have suffered en route to the UK?
Plymouth has a fine reputation for welcoming refugees. Students and Refugees Together is a superb example of how open and welcoming we are as a city, but there is still so much more we need to do as a country. I would be grateful if the Minister continued to fight the case within Government, because we need to send a message to our entire nation that these young unaccompanied refugees are not drains on the state. They are part of our shared humanity, and we have a collective responsibility to look after them.
Images from a terrible war that has been going on for years haunt us daily. Families suffer on an unimaginable scale. We sit in front of our TV screens feeling helpless, but we actually can do something about these things, especially here in Westminster. We can help families escape this horror. To do that, we must change our wrongheaded immigration rules. I welcome this timely debate, which is not just about rebuilding lives, but ultimately saving them. I am sorry I cannot be in Westminster on 16 March.
It makes no sense that under immigration laws, children alone in the UK have no right to be reunited with even their closest family members, unlike adult refugees. If we allow children refugee status in the UK, we have accepted that it is too dangerous for them to return home. Should they never see their loved ones again? Are we condemning their families to face daily threats to their lives, while their children risk becoming orphans? These children have already been through enough, and it is not for us to punish them further. Being reunited with their family is surely the best way for them to rebuild their life. Not reuniting them is cruel, and means they will become increasingly vulnerable in the UK.
The Government’s response so far has been absurd. They say that changing the rules would create a perverse incentive to encourage children to leave their families and risk hazardous journeys to the UK. That is astonishing. We are not talking about a nice holiday trip across the Mediterranean; we are talking about escaping grave danger. The Government’s obsession with cutting immigration is stopping us from responding as human beings and being compassionate. Helping refugees is the right thing to do.
The rules of family reunion for those given refugee status are incredibly complex, and the obstacles to evidencing a family link when that family has been torn apart due to conflict can be impossible to overcome. The problems are often multiplied by language barriers. The fact that there is little legal aid means that these people struggle to rebuild their lives.
I grew up in Germany—my country of origin—under an immense feeling of guilt at what the country had inflicted on the rest of the world. Germany has taken in more than 1 million Syrian refugees. That is not as some form of redemption, but because it is a changed country. Britain, my country of choice, has a proud tradition of being a sanctuary for those who are persecuted. Let us not take the reverse direction. Let us remember our values. We should be compassionate and able to look refugee families in the eye, knowing that we have done the right thing.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl, for chairing today’s debate so astutely, so we could hear so many powerful and thoughtful speeches. I pay a warm tribute to the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for introducing the debate, for his powerful advocacy on the issue, and for securing such an amazing turnout. I emphasise that on Friday 16 March we have a significant opportunity to change the rules on family reunion and legal aid for family reunion applications. If as many hon. Members as possible could put that date in their diary, that would be greatly appreciated.
It is good to debate this important issue again; it must be the third or fourth time we have debated it in the last couple of years, which illustrates the strength of feeling among hon. Members and their discontent with the rules. That discontent essentially falls into two parts: first, discontent about the difficulties that families face in going through with a family reunion, even when people qualify under the rules; and secondly, discontent about the rules being drawn too tightly.
Before I touch on each of those aspects, it is important to recall how important family reunion is. It is important that people applying to come here can be reunited with family members, because very often that provides a safe, legal route to a place of safety—a route that would not otherwise exist. It is also vital for the family members who are here already. Their lives can be made unbearable, as hon. Members have attested, and their integration can be made much more difficult by separation from, and the suffering of, their loved ones who are unable to join them here.
Family reunion helps to achieve the aim, which I think we in this Chamber all share, of reducing the number of dangerous journeys that have to be made. It also undermines the people smugglers’ business model. After all, which people are most likely to do anything open to them—to move heaven and earth—to get to the UK? People in dangerous or difficult situations who have a reason to be here in the form of family. If there is no safe, legal route, people with family in the UK will be the most likely to turn to the people traffickers.
I turn to the first issue that I outlined: the procedures for those who are fortunate enough to qualify. As I will show, the requirements can be complex, and it is not straightforward for a person to prove that they meet them, as the Red Cross explained in an excellent report. Even proving what would seem a very simple part of the rules, such as two people’s relationship, is sometimes not easy. In the case of children, we instinctively think of a birth certificate, but what if someone is from, say, Eritrea? How do the UK Government form a view on whether to give such documents evidential weight? Will we need an expert report on the authenticity of that birth certificate? Should we get a DNA test? What if the child is adopted or is a stepchild? All that is without even thinking about language and cultural barriers, never mind levels of education.
I used to be an immigration solicitor, and had the fortune to assist a number of families with such applications. It was always clear as day to me that legal aid to provide that advice was appropriate. I am glad that it is still available in Scotland for family reunion applications; it should be available in the rest of the United Kingdom, given how important and difficult these issues are.
Turning to the various rules that apply to children seeking to be reunited here, part 11 of the immigration rules allows for pre-flight children who are under 18 to obtain refugee family reunion with parents here. It is a solid enough starting point, but even here there are some questions. For example, why should a 17-year-old who moved out of the family house to go and study, just months before his family fled, be excluded from the scope of the rules? Much more fundamentally, why draw the line at 18? Everyone here would be horrified to be told that their 18-year-old had to be left behind, while their 15 and 17-year-old siblings were able to come to the United Kingdom. A more generous option would, of course, be to make the provision available for those up to the age of 21 or 25, or we could apply a test of whether the adult child was still part of the household, and/or a dependent. There are different perspectives, but unfortunately, again, UK immigration rules seem to take one of the most restrictive options possible.
If someone does not qualify under the general family reunion rules, they look to part 8 of the immigration rules, where there are alternatives for children. Here is probably where we find some of the greatest injustices. For children seeking to join other relatives, such as siblings or uncles and aunts, the tests are infinitely more difficult. They must prove not just their relationship, but
“serious and compelling family or other considerations which make exclusion of the child undesirable”.
Crucially, the sponsor must also be able to prove an ability to maintain and accommodate the child without recourse to public funds.
Hon. Members will all have had—some spoke about this—new refugees at their surgeries. An example would be a Somali couple, who have been here just a few months with younger teenage children. They may be making good attempts to integrate and learn English, but may be hindered by the distress of separation from a niece or sister who they fear for and believe is vulnerable without other family support. The idea that they will be able to meet all those financial tests so that their sister or niece can arrive here is ridiculous.
If there are serious and compelling considerations that make exclusion of a child undesirable—itself a tough test—surely in no circumstances should there be an additional financial test. That test can force families into horrible choices. What if the family has enough financial resources or accommodation to meet the tests in relation to one child, but not a second? Just this morning, I heard of a family forced to make such a horrendous decision. They could pick one child, but not both; otherwise, the financial and accommodation tests would not be met.
Injustice is served not only to kids seeking to join relatives other than their parents, but to adult children seeking to join their parents. Those 18 and 19-year-old kids have to meet some even more fiendishly challenging legal tests: they have to show that they are in not “exceptional compassionate circumstances”, but “the most exceptional compassionate circumstances”. Think about a 19-year-old daughter living alone in a refugee camp in Kenya. Today, those are hardly exceptional circumstances, never mind the most exceptional, but I think most people in the Chamber would think that she should qualify for family reunion. How many of us could honestly say that if we were in the position of the Somali couple to whom I referred, we would not be tempted to resort to the people smugglers, if that was the only route by which we could get our daughter to the United Kingdom? Government policy is, in essence, in danger of driving parents to make those decisions.
The same maintenance and accommodation requirements risk an even more horrendous situation. Imagine that a 19-year-old in a refugee camp has been seriously harmed. How can it be that we might end up with a decision that says, “I acknowledge that you are living alone in the most exceptional compassionate circumstances, but we’re still not going to let you in, because you aren’t earning enough money yet to meet the financial thresholds”? That would be an incredible injustice.
Families are left to make an application to the entry clearance officer outside the rules, desperately hoping that he or she will exercise discretion and allow that 19-year-old in anyway. The Government say that this is the answer to the problem, but there were only 21 cases in 2015 and 49 in 2016 where such applications were successful. In the circumstances we face, those are worryingly low numbers. If the rules are complex, the guidance on how to exercise discretion, which again requires exceptional circumstances and recognises that grants will be rare, is even more so. We also have to acknowledge that those successful in applications outside the rules will be granted much more restrictive rights than if they had been successful under the rules.
If there were time, I would also criticise the unfairness towards refugees who have been granted UK citizenship and are deprived of family reunion rights. I could also criticise rules on post-flight children, which are restrictive as well. I join other Members in criticising the intransigence of the Government in refusing to allow refugee children who are here to sponsor their parents to come here, a situation that the Home Affairs Committee has described as “perverse”. The Government’s argument that it would create a pull factor is not based on any evidence, and is horrendously unethical. At the end of the day, we need to do what is just and fair. The idea that we should treat people—children in this case—unfairly simply to disincentivise other people, including children, from seeking asylum in our country is pretty outrageous.
I hope that the Minister is listening to the arguments that have been powerfully made by hon. Members from across the House. If not, I hope that hon. Members will join us on Friday 16 March in ensuring that progressive change is made to the UK’s family reunion rules.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for securing today’s debate and for his excellent speech. There have been many great contributions this afternoon, so I will not name any hon. Members, but simply thank them all for enriching the debate.
At the moment, unaccompanied children who have been granted refugee status do not have the right to sponsor their family members to join them. We are one of the few countries in Europe with that policy. Adult refugees can be joined only by their spouse or partner and dependent children under 18. That means that they cannot bring siblings, parents, aunts or uncles.
In her speech yesterday, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary announced our policy on family reunion. Under a Labour Government, if a child has been granted the right to be here, so will their parents or carers. If they have been brought up by carers or parents with a right to be here, they will also have that right, even after they turn 18. That will allow child refugees to be reunited with their families, and will end the awful practice of children who have spent their childhood and adolescence in the UK being deported at the age of 18 to countries that they often know nothing about, and with which they have no affinity. I will make the positive argument that family reunion promotes integration, and then refute the Government’s false claim that this policy will act as a pull factor.
Separation from family members is a real barrier to integration. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says:
“there is a direct link between family reunification, mental health and successful integration.”
The first thing that many migrants say when they are granted status is, “How do I bring my family?” That can lead to spending enormous amounts of money and effort in attempting to bring family members here, even when that is impossible under the immigration rules.
Samba is a refugee who has been in contact with the Refugee Council. She is a mother from central Africa who has been resettled in the UK with two of her children, but separated from her daughter and grandchildren. She sent every bit of money she had to her family and lived in poverty. Many refugees are unable to focus on taking steps to integrate because of worry about family members and feelings of guilt.
One refugee, Mwanza, described to the Refugee Council going to English language classes and taking nothing in, because of the worry about his wife and daughter, who are still in a refugee camp in central Africa. Mwanza’s difficulty in English classes affected his ability not only to integrate, but to support his family, as English is essential for finding employment.
Integration is already a real challenge for refugee children coming to the UK, and separation from their families makes it much harder. On the other hand, when refugees, especially children, are reunited with family members, that accelerates integration, both for the new arrivals and for family members already in the UK.
The Government’s reason for not doing more to reunite refugee families in the UK has been that they do not want to create a pull factor that encourages unaccompanied children to make dangerous journeys to the UK. We reject that argument completely, for two reasons. First, it fundamentally misunderstands the causes of migration flows. People do not leave their families and take dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and Europe, with all the associated risks, because of the welfare benefits of the UK. Apart from anything, many refugees arrive with a misunderstanding of our refugee system. Push factors on migrants far outweigh any other issue. So long as there is war, violence, persecution and conflict, people will be forced to flee their homes.
Secondly, a lack of legal routes to resettlement actually encourages people to make dangerous journeys. Legal schemes disrupt the activities of people traffickers, rather than encourage them. Where legal routes are limited, where children lose faith in systems and trust in officials, they turn to people traffickers or smugglers, who exploit them.
Omar has been granted refugee status in the UK after fleeing Syria. His brother is 17 years old and is in danger of being forcibly recruited into the army. The rules on refugee family reunion do not allow Omar to sponsor his brother, so he is forced to explore the possibility of helping his brother to make the dangerous journey to Europe. Once Khaled arrived in Europe, he would be able to ask for his case to be transferred to the UK under the Dublin III regulations. They would both rather avoid a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, but without a legal route, they have no other option.
It is clear that extending family reunion rules is in the interests of refugees and society as a whole. Labour promotes a fair, managed migration system that honours our humanitarian obligations. We support the family reunification Bill that will come before the House on 16 March. We want to allow refugees to settle, integrate and live fulfilling lives in the UK, and to avoid the perverse situation where children who have close family in danger abroad cannot be reunited with them, and are brought up instead in our care system.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this debate and I reassure him I will certainly leave him a couple of minutes at the end.
I start by thanking everyone here today who has contributed with thought-provoking and compassionate contributions. I have listened carefully to the many accounts of how important it has been for refugees in Members’ own constituencies to have their family members join them, to support their wellbeing and their integration into society. Like other Front-Bench spokespeople, I will not pick out individual contributions at length as I am conscious that I am very short on time, but I would reassure hon. Members that during the past five weeks or so that I have been in this role, I have taken the time to meet representatives from charities in my own constituency and nationally. I was particularly moved to meet Lana and Yameena, two Southampton University students. Lana had very specific experience of refugees when she was living in France and her family had welcomed a number of young refugees into her home. She was very clear to describe them to me as her brothers.
I assure the House that we are listening to the concerns about refugee family reunion. I know from my early discussions with non-governmental organisations and international organisations the importance placed on the issues, and that has been reinforced during our debate today. They are also issues my predecessor discussed on many occasions with NGOs, in the context of our wider asylum and resettlement strategy. I look forward to continuing that important work.
Several colleagues have focused on the question of extending the family reunion criteria, which is the subject of Baroness Hamwee’s private Member’s Bill and of the private Member’s Bill from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)—if the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) can be nervous about the pronunciation of that, he can probably imagine how I feel—which was introduced earlier this week and is due to come before this House for Second Reading on 16 March.
The Government’s policy objective for refugee family reunion remains to ensure that we are able to bring together pre-flight families and dependents who are in precarious or compelling circumstances. We must ensure that our policies support those who need our protection who cannot remain in their country or region of origin. I would therefore ask hon. Members to reflect on the policy objective of the private Member’s Bill, because the proposals, as currently drafted, would go far beyond that. It could lead to the policy being used by significantly more people who have no protection needs or who are not necessarily in precarious positions.
The Government strongly support the principle of family unity and we have a comprehensive approach to refugee family reunion set out in the immigration rules and our family reunion policy. Our starting point is that family reunion is a matter for immigration rules and policy, rather than primary legislation. Many hon. Members have highlighted that the family reunion rules provide only for immediate family members of refugees, but the immigration rules and resettlement schemes provide for extended family members to join their family here, if they are in the most precarious and dangerous circumstances.
The Minister is right to highlight that there are other routes available to different family members, but will she comment on the maintenance and accommodation test? Even if an applicant can show that they are living in the most compelling compassionate circumstances, that application could still be rejected because the sponsor in the United Kingdom does not meet a certain financial or accommodation threshold. Surely that is an unjust way to go about things.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that with me. That is one of the points that I will take away with me from today’s debate.
We provide for British citizens to sponsor family members, there is provision to grant visas outside the rules in exceptional cases, and the mandate refugee scheme enables those recognised by the UNHCR as refugees to join close family members here in the UK.
I have noted the concerns raised today that so-called family reunification under the Dublin regulations may no longer be available post Brexit. However, Dublin does not confer immigration status simply because an individual has a family member in the UK. It is a mechanism for deciding the member state responsible for considering an asylum claim. It is for those seeking asylum and not those granted refugee status.
Having said that I was not going to pick up particular points, I would like to pick up on those made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who raised the Sandhurst treaty. Many Members have referenced Dublin III and the Dubs scheme. I was fortunate in 2015-16 to be a member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe with Alf Dubs—he insisted that I call him Alf at all times, so I apologise if I refer to him incorrectly today. Travelling abroad with Lord Dubs was an incredibly instructive experience. The Sandhurst treaty was signed very soon after I came into this role—I think within the first two weeks.
I reassure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport that we have committed £3.6 million to enable us to strengthen our co-operation with France on the operation of the Dublin regulation and the development fund, and to work with it to identify projects that support genuine claims through the Dublin process. A significant part of the Sandhurst treaty was about looking at the whole route for refugees. It is crucially important that we do not look at it in isolation either in the middle east and north Africa region or in Calais. We have to look at the entire journey that individuals make.
On the 480 children that will be accepted under Dubs—the number was at 220 when I came into this role—we are determined to ensure that, by changing the date and working closely with Greece and Italy, we fulfil that requirement. I regard it to be an absolute priority to take the 480 young people we have committed to.
Anyone transferred under the Dublin regulation will be expected to leave the UK if they are found not to need protection. Our family reunion rules will continue to enable immediate family members to reunite with their loved ones in the UK safely, regardless of the country in which they are based.
Pretty much every hon. Member raised legal aid and the cost of legal representation for family reunion cases. On 30 October, the Lord Chancellor announced the start of a review of legal aid reforms, which will include an assessment of the changes to the scope of legal aid for immigration cases, and will report later this year. Although family reunion cases generally do not fall within the scope of the legal aid scheme, exceptional case funding may be made available where it is legally required. We are committed to providing clear guidance and application forms to support applicants through the family reunion process, and are working with key partners such as the British Red Cross and UNICEF to improve the process for considering family reunion applications.
It is vital that our focus remains on those most in need of our protection—particularly those fleeing conflict. The Government have invested significantly in supporting the most vulnerable refugees through our resettlement programmes, which offer safe and legal routes to protection and are designed to keep families together. By 2020, we will have resettled 20,000 refugees from Syria. We announced this week that we are at the halfway point, so 10,000 vulnerable families have been resettled in this country and a further 3,000 children and families have been resettled from the wider MENA region. Last year, we provided 6,212 people with protection under all our resettlement schemes. Over the past five years we have issued 24,700 family reunion visas, and since 2010 we have provided 49,830 people with protection status in the UK—they are entitled to apply for their qualifying members to join them.
I believe that our comprehensive approach to refugee family reunion already caters for the types of case that hon. Members are concerned about and provides safe and legal routes for families to reunite here. However, we need to concentrate our efforts on ensuring that our existing resettlement schemes are used to full effect, and that the current rules work properly and effectively. In that way, we will continue to help those who need it most.
I have already met representatives from UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I thank the Refugee Council for sending me the report “Safe but Not Settled”, which looks at how the separation of refugees in the UK from their family members affects their successful integration into their new life in the UK. I look forward to further meetings with representatives of the Refugee Council, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organisations to discuss the important issue of family reunion in the coming weeks.
I therefore ask hon. Members from both sides of the House and representatives of NGOs to continue working with the Government to build on the existing family reunion policy and process to make our resettlement schemes and immigration rules work in the most effective way. In that way, we can ensure that more families are reunited as quickly, legally and safely as possible.
I thank all colleagues who attended and spoke this afternoon. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) came in late, but he has made a contribution to this debate.
Our obligation to the poorest and most vulnerable in the world was highlighted today in some powerful speeches. We heard some very powerful words, such as “humanity” and “human rights”, and my colleagues made some important contributions. I thank them all for that. I asked the Minister a set of clear questions, and I shall be following them up. I was not fully satisfied with her answers—particularly on legal aid. The questions were all perfectly acceptable and should be answered positively not just with words but with actions.
I look forward to working with all colleagues over the coming months. I will attend the debate on 16 March, and I will continue to help and support people. I will not walk on the other side of the road; I will walk on the side of humanity. There should not be a political divide. I am disappointed that there are some empty chairs here, but I respect the fact that it is Thursday afternoon and people have other places to get to.
I came to this House to change society. Since I was a child, I have been looking for world peace. That is the answer: world peace. It is not going to happen tomorrow. All I ask is that, if any child needs a hand to reach out to, we should offer that helping hand. Do not do it for me: let us remember Alan Kurdi.
This has been an excellent debate, and I thank you all for your forbearance. We have managed to get all speakers in in very good time, so you are all to be congratulated. This was a deeply emotional, very significant debate on the future of children.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reunion for refugee children with family in the UK.
Child Poverty: London
I beg to move,
That this House has considered child poverty in London.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate on such an incredibly important issue.
“We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
That was the promise made outside No. 10 following the appointment of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) as Prime Minister in July 2016. Less than five months later, the Government’s Child Poverty Unit was axed.
Last month, I received the incredibly saddening news from the End Child Poverty coalition that a staggering 32% of the children in my constituency of Mitcham and Morden are living in poverty. They are 8,598 of the 700,000 children across our capital who are living below the poverty line, defined as the minimum acceptable standard of living. Those children, through no fault of their own or of their family, do not have a warm winter coat, cannot afford to go on some school trips, and are denied the basic ability to have friends over for tea.
Today’s debate gives me the opportunity to tell hon. Members about the reality behind the child poverty statistics. I am worried that the Government do not take the plight of child poverty seriously enough. One in 10 London families has relied on a food bank. Some 88,410 London children are living in temporary accommodation, which is often poor quality and far from their schools and friends, without a place they can call home. A childhood in poverty often leads to an adulthood in poverty and a shorter, less fruitful life. Work is no longer the best route out of poverty, given that the majority of children in poverty grow up in a working household.
It is time for Parliament to understand just what causes poverty, and the tangible actions that the Government have the power to enact to make UK child poverty a thing of the past.
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
Across the capital, London’s children are more likely to grow up in poverty than their contemporaries elsewhere in the UK. Child Poverty Action Group and others have shown that there are as many poor children in London as in all of Scotland and Wales. In some constituencies in London more than half of children are growing up in poverty. Consider that for a moment—there are places in this country where people are more likely than not to be born into and grow up in poverty. To put such a postcode lottery into context, compare that with the most affluent constituencies where only one in 10 children grow up in poverty.
In fact, of the 25 constituencies with the highest levels of poverty, nine are in our capital: Bethnal Green and Bow, Poplar and Limehouse, Edmonton, Westminster North, East Ham, Holborn and St Pancras, Hackney South and Shoreditch, Tottenham, and West Ham. Some of the biggest increases in child poverty have been in those areas already facing the greatest deprivation. Twenty-eight per cent. of children living in poverty in London are materially deprived, meaning that on the grounds of cost they lack basic items such as warm clothes. This is not a developing country and this is not 19th-century Britain, and yet this country’s children are suffering more than ever before.
To add insult to injury, London is a hub of wealth and affluence. Trust for London has shown that the poorest 50% of Londoners own only 5% of the wealth, while the wealthiest 10% own half of the capital’s wealth. Being born into a wealthy city will not protect someone from poverty.
Furthermore, while the Government continue to blame the prevalence of poverty on the workless, consider the fact that two thirds of children in poverty live in a working household. The toxic combination of rising inflation, falling real wages, frozen benefits and the astronomical cost of childcare means that work is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does she agree with me that the role that the increase in the number of children living in the private rented sector has on child poverty is an important consideration? One in four children grow up in the private rented sector, more than a quarter of those homes do not meet the decent homes standard and almost half of those families have a tenancy of six months or less. Does she agree that the Government need to make reform of the private rented sector and delivery of genuinely affordable housing the cornerstone of their approach to child poverty?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I know how much work she does on housing, but many Members present, in particular on the Labour Benches, spend most of their advice surgeries talking to families threatened with homelessness—people who live in the private sector and simply cannot afford the rents.
I want Members to hear children’s stories rather than just statistics, because ultimately we are talking about human beings rather than percentages, so I will read an extract from a heartbreaking letter I received from Mrs Sheridan, headteacher at Malmesbury Primary School in my constituency, outlining her experience of child poverty:
“A child had lost his reading book. We encouraged him to have a good look at home, including asking him to look under his bed. He replied ‘I haven’t got a bed to look under’…We see children who eat their lunch very quickly, whilst ‘protecting’ their plate with an arm as they eat…We see children who take extra bread and pasta from the salad bar daily to fill themselves up…We see children attending school in a uniform that is clearly outgrown…We had a family of five, the father who was in work, who lived in a van in a car park for a number of weeks…Parents have asked to use the school phone as they have lengthy delays in payment of Universal Credit, and have no money for phone credit to chase up their claim…We believe that we have a significant number of children who are so used to feeling hungry and cold that they do not recognise these feelings anymore.”
What message does the Minister have for Mrs Sheridan and, indeed, for those children, who are experiencing such deplorable examples of child poverty on a daily basis?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject and for the case that she is making. She has mentioned universal credit. Does she agree with me that the roll-out of universal credit to a number of the constituencies that she listed earlier will make some of those families’ problems significantly worse over the next few months?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention and for all his work on poverty and helping poor families in London, in particular in his constituency. I completely agree that the delay in universal credit, the difficulties in claiming and the lack of face-to-face contact to be able to resolve some of the problems will have dire impacts on people.
Those examples I gave from Mrs Sheridan’s letter are just some of the examples of child poverty from just one school in just one constituency in our capital, across which four in 10 children now live in poverty—an astonishing figure that is expected to rise. London, however, is a divided city and significant affluence and poverty exist side by side, sometimes on the same street.
Take the London Borough of Merton, where my constituency neighbours the more wealthy constituency of Wimbledon. When we compare child poverty in our borough, it proves to be a sombre metaphor for the story of rich and poor across our capital. There are almost triple the number of children in poverty in my constituency than in Wimbledon and, to be clear, that is not because my constituents are less deserving or work less hard. At local ward level, Cricket Green ward in Mitcham and Morden has a staggering 38% of children in poverty, while less than a five-minute drive away, in the same borough, Wimbledon’s Hillside ward has only 5.5% of children in poverty. Furthermore, Mrs Sheridan, the Malmesbury headteacher, noted a distressing observation she had made: children from her school are significantly smaller physically than their peers in Wimbledon schools.
Does my hon. Friend agree with me that, as Save the Children found out, in almost half the families living in poverty the youngest child is under the age of five? Is it not therefore crucial that the Government target help on low-income families in the early years?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I ask the Minister what the Government will do to ensure equality of opportunity for all children in our capital, so that the letters of their postcode will not be the determining factor in their lives, dictating how long they live and their quality of life. Almost half of families in poverty are those whose youngest child is under the age of five, the point my hon. Friend just made, so what will the Government do to provide support for low-income families in the early years? How will we ever plug the gap that the absence of Sure Start centres has left?
For the 8,598 children living in poverty in my constituency, the consequences will be lifelong: children who start behind stay behind, harming their prospects throughout life, and harming us all as a society. At birth, they are more likely to have a low birth weight. By primary school, half of all disadvantaged children begin without reaching a good level of early development, compared with the national average of only one third of children. By GCSE, in terms of the numbers achieving at least five A* to C grades, there is a gap of 28% between children receiving free school meals and their more affluent peers.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and compelling speech. Her constituency is not dissimilar to mine. When we think of child poverty, we think of Dickensian cobbled streets and of it as some sort of inner-city malady, but we both represent suburban seats. In Ealing Central and Acton 7,179 children live in poverty, which is not a dissimilar figure to the one she quoted. We also hear about Victorian diseases such as tuberculosis making a comeback. Those places were built to fulfil the suburban dream to get away from the inner city, but the horrible scourge of child poverty is coming to our suburbs. Does she agree with me?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There are great similarities. Suburban London is not the suburban London that many of us think exists.
By the end of their lives, boys from poorer backgrounds have a life expectancy that is an astonishing 9.2 years shorter than that of their wealthier counterparts. Take my borough, Merton, where Wimbledon constituents have a life expectancy almost three years longer than those in Mitcham and Morden, despite a mere letter change in their postcode. The Government, I know, are extremely fiscally responsible so, if that is not enough to inspire the Minister to action, perhaps it is worth them considering that child poverty costs the UK economy a staggering £29 billion per year in services and wasted potential.
My hon. Friend is making a typically powerful speech and has done us a great service in highlighting such an important issue. She is absolutely right to highlight the economic cost of child poverty, but I think that collectively we agree it is also a moral issue. Does she agree with me that what gets measured gets done? Does she also agree that if we are serious about reducing unacceptably high levels of child poverty in our country, we need a target for reduction? Any Government of whatever political colour who are not prepared to commit to such a target will struggle to be taken seriously on the issue of child poverty.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend him for all the work that he does on child poverty. We might not all like targets, but they work.
The fundamental factor explaining London’s disproportionately high child poverty rates is the soaring cost and extreme shortage of housing. Across our capital there is a homelessness crisis, with 54,660 households in temporary accommodation, a figure that makes up 69% of the national total. Some 2,730 of those households are in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation, including 500 households with children who have been in B&Bs in London for longer than the six-week legal limit.
In my constituency I discovered a converted warehouse in the heart of one of south London’s busiest industrial estates. Connect House temporarily houses up to 86 homeless families with a car park as a playground and rooms so small that families sleep horizontally to all fit in a bed. Families have been placed there from across London, causing children to fall ill, miss school, and even to be found wandering lost around a working industrial estate at night. That is Dickensian, a disaster waiting to happen, and the reality of 21st-century child poverty in London.
The private rented sector—back to the earlier point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes)—is where children in poverty are most likely to live, with child poverty in private rents tripling in the past decade alone. That is unsurprising considering that the lowest quartile of rents in London are more than 150% higher than elsewhere in England. That means the average tenant in the capital spends a staggering half of their salary on rent. At my most recent advice surgery on Friday I met John, a married man in his 50s who spends 74% of his monthly income to fund the roof over his head: a one-bedroom flat that he shares with his wife and 11-year-old son. Can the Minister tell me how someone like John will ever be able to afford to save to own his own home, or how work provides John with a route out of poverty?
So what can be done about housing? Since 1939 the delivery of more than 200,000 homes a year in England has happened only in years when there have been major public sector house building programmes, and the last time that the Government target of 300,000 homes were built in one year in England was in 1969, when councils and housing associations were also building new homes. We urgently need to grant local authorities the right to build and the right to buy so that housing can be let to families on low incomes at social housing rents.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Her point on housing is extremely well made. Does she share my concern that some of the regeneration of estates in London is reducing the amount of social housing and that the opportunity to improve and increase social housing is simply not being taken in estate after estate across London?
I have a slightly different and perhaps more controversial view of redevelopments. I congratulate councils that try to deal with problems in difficult circumstances and come up with solutions that would not always be their first choice. In life, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the way to make friends is to do nothing. Sometimes doing something makes you more enemies. I congratulate all the councils of whatever persuasion that are trying to do their best in really difficult circumstances.
A mechanism should be introduced so that any public sector site up for disposal has to be considered for the construction of social or mixed housing, including a substantial proportion that is social. Currently, public bodies tend to sell sites to raise money, not to provide homes. They often hide behind the requirement to obtain best value. For me and many Members here today, best value is the provision of homes for homeless or overcrowded families. How about building on the 19,334 hectares of unbuilt greenbelt land within a 10-minute walk of a London train station? It is not traditional greenbelt land. At no environmental cost, it is enough space for almost 1 million new homes in our capital.
It is not only extortionate housing costs that London faces, but living costs higher than anywhere else in England. In fact, nearly 40% of Londoners have an income below the amount needed to achieve a basic decent standard of living, with children the most likely to live below minimum income standards.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on all the work that she has done on poverty and housing in London and nationally. Does she agree that the distinction between social and affordable housing is crucial to addressing the problem of housing for those living in poverty? In the previous Budget there was no mention whatever of social housing. Affordable housing in London is very often not affordable. If the Government are to do anything about these issues, they need to grasp this distinction, which they either do not understand or deliberately do not want to address.
I am sure that as politicians we often live by our word, and I am extremely offended by the way we now use the word “affordable”. In housing terms, “affordable” means 80% of market rent. I suspect many of us here today could not manage to pay an affordable rent, let alone somebody on a low or median income in the capital. I would be grateful to find a way to ban the word “affordable” in this context.
Again, the hon. Lady makes a powerful point, along with her right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan). My wife is a social housing lawyer and she has a presentation on the meaning of “affordable” in Government policy and law. She has found 11 different definitions of affordability, so not only is it confusing—“affordable” often does not mean affordable—but it is completely absurd and we need to get back to the issue of social housing that the hon. Lady raised.
I wish to say this tactfully because I like the right hon. Gentleman a great deal. The problem and the definition of affordability at 80% market value goes back to the 2010 coalition Government. I do not wish to be mean; I simply wish to put that on the record.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. I do not think it is a question of being mean. It is a question of holding to account, and there simply is not enough holding to account of either the previous coalition Government and their Cabinet members or the current Government. If there was more holding to account, we would not be facing the dire circumstances in which many thousands of children are paying the price for those two Governments not being accountable and not addressing the issues that matter.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention.
Across the capital, wages have not kept up with the cost of living and in most parts of London a full-time minimum wage job barely covers the rent. While the cost of living continues to soar, state support for low-income families continues to fall in real terms. The extraordinary cost of living has left one in 10 London families—I could barely believe that figure—to rely on a food bank, with three-day emergency food supplies provided to 169,896 people in London since April 2016.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She mentions families; does she agree that there is a particular problem for single-parent families? According to the charity Gingerbread, 47% of them live in relative poverty. That is the household type that has been hit hardest by welfare reform. It needs a particular kind of support, such as with childcare.
It is as if my hon. Friend anticipates what I am going to say. I thank him for his intervention and apologise for speaking for so long; I did not anticipate that so many would want to take part in the debate. I shall try to truncate my remarks as I do not want to take away the opportunity for others to speak.
For many children in poverty, a free school lunch may be the only healthy cooked meal of the day. The Department for Education found that it can lead to positive improvements in attainment and social cohesion, and can also act as a passport to other support such as help with school clothing, trips or extracurricular activities. It is stunning therefore that the Children’s Society estimates that about a million children living in poverty will miss out on free school meals under the Government’s latest proposals to introduce an earnings threshold for eligibility under universal credit. As many of us know, the roll-out of universal credit has countless problems, but completing its roll-out under existing legislation, under which all claimants are eligible for free school meals, would cost approximately £500 million—a fraction of the £29 billion cost of child poverty.
As for childcare costs, a close friend of mine recently had a baby and now, to go to work, she pays £1,000 a month in childcare for her very young child. That is like paying an additional rent every month, just to get access to childcare. She is not alone. Gingerbread reports that some single parents will spend more than half their income on childcare costs so that they can go to work. No wonder 51% of single-parent families in London live in relative poverty. The day-to-day reality means that one in 10 working single parents has had to rely on payday lenders, doorstep lenders and foodbanks. It is that group that makes up half of households in temporary accommodation, whose work in zero-hours contracts has increased tenfold over the past decade, and which is set to lose around 15% of its net income by 2021-22 as a result of this Government’s tax and benefit reforms. How will those reforms ever enable those families to escape poverty?
What about families in London who have a child with a disability? The annual cost of bringing up a disabled child is three times more than that of bringing up a non-disabled child. That results in a staggering 60% of children and young people with learning disabilities and mental ill health living in poverty. In fact, according to a survey in 2012, 17% of families with disabled children go without food; 21% go without heating; 26% go without specialist equipment or adaptations; and 86% go without leisure activity. Does the Minister agree with me that a child with a disability should be no more predisposed to childhood poverty than any other child?
I will end my remarks there to allow others to take part in the discussion. I have many suggestions for solutions that I hope will come up during the debate.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for requesting the debate, which is something I supported.
Too often, London is portrayed within the national context as a rich and robust powerhouse, which gobbles infrastructure funds and brashly demands priority in debates on the north-south divide. As those of us representing London seats know, however, deprivation is threaded through every quarter of our city, and has been for centuries. None the less, the capital now moves at such lightning pace that its local authorities must at times meet gargantuan challenges in serving their populations, using budgets calculated on outdated demographic assumptions. That can make the challenge of addressing child poverty extremely tricky.
The reward for all its economic successes is that London is one of only three regions in the UK where tax receipts outstrip public spending. That means that every Londoner gives £3,070 more in taxes than they receive in Government spend. For those of us representing outer London boroughs, I suspect that effect on public spending figures may be even more pronounced. It has long been assumed that inner-London boroughs have the highest need. I believe we now desperately need to reassess those outdated assumptions and catch up with the growing pressures on outer-London boroughs such as Havering.
Havering is one of London’s lowest-funded boroughs, yet it has the oldest population in the capital as well as the fastest growing number of children of any borough for the past three years in a row. During a six-year period from 2010 to 2015, some 4,536 children settled in the borough, leading to a huge demand for children’s social care and services for those with disabilities and special educational needs. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), for the additional £2.1 million provided to the borough in the new funding settlement, but we now need a wholesale review of funding in London to keep up with the changing demographics. I shall be contributing to the Government’s consultation in that regard.
Population change also strains housing supply, which is causing rents to leap in Havering. The link between child poverty and workless households is well established, and the Government’s fantastic record on driving down unemployment should be recognised as the huge achievement that it is for the impact on individuals’ lives. For some families, however, a regular wage may not be sufficient to cope with rapidly rising housing costs. I have visited some of the temporary accommodation available in Havering for families and, while staff and council do a fantastic job in working with children who stay there, it is no substitute for safe, warm and high-quality homes.
Havering is champing at the bit to undertake an ambitious estate regeneration plan so that it can provide local families with the greater range of affordable—if I may use that word—housing options that they need. If we are serious about urgently tackling the housing crisis and child poverty, we need to unleash those councils that have sensible, financially sound plans to lead redevelopment themselves, not least as they can tolerate lower returns than private developers. I was glad to see the Budget lift the housing revenue account cap in high-demand areas to aid housing delivery plans, and I welcome additional support for those who are homeless or struggling with private rents.
Education has always provided a crucial ladder when it comes to poverty alleviation, and I am lucky to represent an area with some of the best primary schools in England, including in some of the country’s poorest wards. Local schools have done a fantastic job of offering children a window into some of the opportunities our city can offer them by building partnerships with universities, businesses and museums, engaging in such things as the Brilliant Club scholars programme and pushing hard on numeracy and literacy. Next week I shall be supporting the World Book Day 2018 literacy and development drive to encourage families to read with their children.
We must not let that progress slip in the transition to secondary school. The requirement to fill in a form for a child to be given a secondary place can unfairly disadvantage pupils on free school meals, as parents are often late or poorly informed, or they fail to complete the form at all. Consequently, too many pupils who have free school meals—especially white British boys—end up without a place and are served the left-over allocations. That can concentrate children in failing schools and entrench social problems. We should instead look at how best to remove the necessity of a form for pupils on free school meals, perhaps by local authorities automatically awarding them their local school unless a parent wants to exercise a preference.
In the past 20 years there has been an intense focus on how to enhance academic performance in inner-city areas, particularly among black and minority ethnic students, which has produced tremendous results. We now need to refresh the approach by looking with the same urgency at the new neglected groups. Perhaps a new Teach First should deal with white working-class areas that are falling behind, or there could be a major drive to improve the quality of pre-school provision by skilling up the nursery workforce, or the creation of dedicated core schools for excluded children. With the number of secondary permanent exclusions climbing for the fourth consecutive year, too many students are being taught in pupil referral units. Core schools would provide an alternative key stage 4 curriculum, with English, maths and science alongside two further technical qualifications. Close working with social services teams could give excluded children safety and stability and flag up problems in the home that can drive child poverty.
Finally, I have focused on the funding needs of outer-London boroughs, but I would caution against seeing child poverty alleviation as something that can be solved by Government money alone.
I respect the hon. Lady for turning up for the debate. We did not have any Conservative Members in the child refugee debate. Does she think at all that £27 billion taken out of social security since 2010 has had any effect on child poverty in London?
We have to look at outcomes as well as methods and spending. I certainly remember that under the Labour Government there were some serious and entrenched poverty problems, because the benefits system was trapping people and there was not a belief that people could do more than they were given. I believe in people and that some of the Government’s reforms have fundamentally changed a lot of people’s lives for the better. Driving employment in households is an absolutely fantastic achievement. We have almost become accustomed to banking these incredible job figures, but they actually mean something to a lot of people. It is incredibly valuable for children to see working parents.
I was not aware that I was attacking the hon. Lady, and I am sorry if that is how she felt.
I have been a councillor in Tower Hamlets and I observed meeting after meeting where councillors in that borough indulged in what I have to admit was an orgy of blame—not just Labour but other councillors, too—suggesting that every negative statistic that the borough racked up was down to Tory cuts, despite overseeing a budget of more than £1 billion, being in receipt millions of unspent section 106 contributions and being able to access all manner of special funding pots due to its poverty ranking. Rarely did councillors expend the same energy in the nitty-gritty of whether the borough’s programmes were effective and delivering results in alleviating poverty.
To give a small example, in my scrutiny of its youth services provision I found that Tower Hamlets was spending more than £1,000 on each young person with whom it came into contact at the extremely poorly attended youth services. That was equivalent to nearly £300 a head in the 13 to 16-year-old population, when Lambeth, Southwark and Greenwich, which are also Labour boroughs and have thriving services, were spending under £150. An attachment by adults to empty youth centres offering outdated programmes was cutting young people off from a much more modern approach to outreach that truly catered to young people’s ambitions. This is what I mean by the need to focus on outcomes rather than methods; there was a real obsession in Tower Hamlets about methods rather than whether results were being delivered—signalling politics rather than delivery politics.
Similarly, a former child services officer advised me that the council had been spending tens of thousands of pounds annually on one troubled family in the borough. It was only when budgets were tightened that officers were forced to review whether those interventions had been working; they realised that the family would be better off if the mother had the confidence to leave an abusive partner. Through very intensive one-to-one work with her, she built up the courage to leave and to get back into the workplace, giving her children the stability to start school again. The council was saved huge amounts of money.
I say this because two of the three national constituencies where child poverty statistics are starkest sit in the borough of Tower Hamlets—one of the most incompetently run corners of our capital. We cannot simply throw a blanket of taxpayers’ money over every problem. Resource is important—I am not denying that—but it must be accompanied by competent governance if it is truly to make a difference to driving down child poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this import debate and on her powerful analysis of the situation. Eight years ago, David Cameron said the Conservatives would be
“the most family-friendly Government you’ve ever seen in this country”.
Less than two years ago, the current Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and proclaimed that she would fight against “burning social injustices” and
“make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”
What we have heard so far today throws some stark reality on that. This debate is another reminder of how reality fails to match the Government’s rhetoric.
My borough of Enfield, where I have lived for the past 20 years, and where my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) has lived all his life, is generally thought of as a leafy borough with a very solid foundation for employment, manufacturing, the service sector and logistics. It has always been said, and I have said many times, that it is a great place to live and bring up a family. However, Enfield is in the midst of a worsening child poverty crisis. Four in 10 of Enfield’s children—almost 34,000—live below the poverty line. The borough is the 11th most impoverished area for children in the UK.
My constituency and neighbouring Edmonton are also two of the top 20 constituencies in the country with the fastest growing levels of child poverty, and Edmonton is in the top 10, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned. As the End Child Poverty coalition has said, low-income families are struggling to put
“food on the table, heat their homes and clothe their children.”
We should feel anger and shame that that is the situation. Last year, Enfield had the fourth highest rate of food bank usage in London. Is it any wonder that this is happening when wages are flatlining, with one in three jobs in Enfield being paid less than the living wage? I ask hon. Members to look at yesterday’s edition of the Enfield Independent, our local paper, which says that eviction rates are the highest in the capital. Levels of homelessness acceptances in Enfield have risen more than 80% in the past two years.
My hon. Friend referred to my constituency surgery, which I do every Friday afternoon from 3 o’clock. Anyone who turns up will be seen, even if they have not made an appointment, because people are desperate. A huge percentage of the problems relate to housing. Many hard-pressed local families are trying—and often failing—to cope with soaring rents and a lack of affordable and social housing. But under this Government, house building has fallen to its lowest peacetime rate since the 1920s. The number of affordable homes in Enfield increased by just over 300 in the three years to 2016. For most families, what is called affordable is not affordable, as we have already discussed. On top of all of this, most benefits for working families have been frozen, which has cut families’ real incomes. There is a serious shortage of genuinely affordable childcare.
I am proud that the last Labour Government introduced Sure Start, the transformative early years programme giving young children the best start in life. When Labour left office in May 2010, there were 24 Sure Start centres in Enfield. Now there are just five. Government cuts to these vital education services are a scandal and our most disadvantaged children are paying the price. As Save the Children has said, the consequences of a lack of quality early years education for children living in poverty are lifelong and
“it harms not only their quality of life, but their ability to learn and develop at a crucial stage in their lives.”
The lack of Government action to address these issues is in stark contrast to the leadership shown by Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, who is championing the London living wage to support low income families.
The Minister may make an intervention if he wishes.
The Mayor is investing £15 million to buy homes for homeless Londoners and recently he launched the capital’s largest living rent scheme, to offer more Londoners a genuinely affordable home. He is supporting early years hubs, delivering on his promise to improve access to high-quality, affordable early years education for the most disadvantaged families in the capital. However, the child poverty crisis is a national issue that demands a co-ordinated, national response from the Government.
I urge Ministers to restore targets to end child poverty. The Government must support local authorities as they attempt to address the worst effects of child poverty in their areas, instead of gutting their budgets. Enfield Council alone has had its central Government funding slashed by £161 million since 2010, with another £35 million in cuts due by next year. The Government need to fix their broken housing policy and help to make sure that all families in Enfield, particularly those on low incomes, have the chance to live in a safe, secure and genuinely affordable home. Universal credit still needs to be fixed to ensure that it does not drive even more families into debt, arrears and eviction, and the Government need to take steps immediately to provide more good-quality childcare and early years education.
Child Poverty Action Group rightly says that poverty
“damages childhoods; it damages life chances; and it damages us all in society.”
I am proud that the last Labour Government lifted 1 million children out of poverty. They addressed this issue and, to a large extent, they succeeded. It is time that, rather than making the situation worse, this Government got their act together for these children or moved over and let someone else do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on introducing the debate so powerfully.
There is more than enough challenge to go around without us having to worry too much about the pressures between inner London and the suburbs, which we have already heard enough about. There are real and growing challenges in suburban London, but child poverty remains acute in inner London, and it is worsening. If London has something of a reputational challenge as a wealthy city, I assure hon. Members that the City of Westminster has an acute reputational challenge. The borough, which contains Mayfair and Knightsbridge, is one of the poorest in the country. It has the sixth highest level of child poverty in the country after housing costs are taken into account, and my constituency has the 15th highest; well over half the children in wards such as Church Street live in poverty.
As Londoners, we must rise to that challenge and recognise that people in other parts of the country struggle to understand that a city with such extraordinary wealth—a city that contains the City of London and the iconic tourist attractions that are so familiar to everyone—is also the region with the highest poverty. It has more children in poverty than Scotland and Wales combined. As Members of Parliament, we have to try to explain that and help people understand it. We must ensure that the specific drivers of poverty in London are understood, and that we get our fair share of resources.
Let me add to the comments by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan). Poverty is not an act of God, but is brought about by a failure by the Government and by market forces to ensure that incomes are sufficiently high to lift children out of poverty, that housing is available at a reasonable cost, and that there are adequate services to support intervention for low-income families and children. I, too, am extremely proud that a Labour Government, although they were not perfect—no Government are—were able, though a mixture of the tax credit system, benefit changes and service delivery, to lift 1 million children out of poverty. That has gone into reverse: according to households below average income statistics, an extra 400,000 children have fallen into poverty since 2010. That was an absolutely foreseeable and deliberate consequence of Government policies, including the freezing and cutting of benefits, the two-child policy, benefit caps and the rents policy, which I shall come on to.
I am also proud of the children’s centres—500 have closed as a result of Government cuts to early intervention and local government funding—and national childcare strategy that a Labour Government set up. Under the previous Labour Mayor, Ken Livingstone, there was a London childcare affordability programme, which did so much to make childcare accessible to lower-income working families. So many of those measures have gone into reverse in the past few years.
As all Opposition Members have generally stressed, housing costs lie at the heart of poverty in the capital. It is housing costs that eat so much of people’s income, and it is housing costs that are driving a crisis of homelessness and housing insecurity. The interface between low-paid work, particularly when that work is insecure, the freeze and in some cases cuts in social security—particularly housing support—and high housing costs is a particular stress point.
Two important reports were published today, including another very important one by Citizens Advice, which found that one in 10 adults in this country has an income that varies from month to month. Someone who lives on a variable income, particularly when that income is low, but has high fixed costs—particularly high housing costs—is likely to find themselves in difficulty. That in turn feeds the epidemic of evictions, which we have heard are happening particularly in outer London, and high debt. That feeds the crisis of mental ill health—anxiety and depression—which is a real challenge for families who are struggling to get by on low incomes and in so many cases see their homes at risk. The pressures of housing and poverty are literally making people sick in their tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. That often drives people to seek advice and help, which are less available than they have been for a great many years.
It has already been said that the most vulnerable and most acutely disadvantaged families in the capital are those who are either in the homelessness system or at risk of homelessness. After many years of decline, the number of families in homelessness accommodation has risen significantly. Some 45,000 children in the capital now live in temporary accommodation, up from 28,000 when the Conservatives came into government in 2010. Those families often live in deeply substandard accommodation—unfortunately, temporary accommodation offers some of the worst conditions any of us have seen—yet they pay excessive rents. As a deliberate consequence of Government policy, those families also find themselves subject to rent restrictions and a benefits cap, even though no family that is accepted as homeless has any say whatsoever in the accommodation they receive, or the price they pay for it.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend has the same experience in her surgeries as I have in mine. Constituents come to see me who pay extortionate rents in the private sector for disgraceful property that is below habitable standards—it is damp, perhaps does not have hot water or heating, or has an out-of-date boiler—yet when I complain and try to get enforcement, they get what is called a revenge eviction and find themselves out on the streets. They have to go into temporary accommodation, they might be moved out of London, and their children might have to change schools. They continually suffer massive disruption to their lives.
I totally agree. The Government will have to rise to the challenge of revenge evictions. That is well overdue. As was said, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, that challenge is in part down to the fact that the face of poverty in London is increasingly in the private rented sector. We have seen a shift of low-income households from social rented accommodation into private rented accommodation, where rents are higher, insecurity is a constant problem and, because people on low incomes have so little choice in accommodation, people find themselves in the worst conditions.
My hon. Friend is making her erudite, detailed knowledge obvious to everyone. Does she know that the Trust for London identified that the average family in poverty 10 years ago lived in inner London on welfare benefits in social housing, and today the average family in poverty in London live in outer London, are in work, and live in the private rented sector?
That is absolutely right. That paints a picture of change, which, as a deliberate policy, has been into the private rented sector. The private rented sector is shifting further out, to outer London, and as has been said, the changing face of poverty is a working face: the number of families in poverty in work has risen sharply in the last decade. We all recognise that work is integral to getting out of poverty and to people’s sense of purpose and wellbeing in life, but work is not sufficient to lift people out of poverty. Above all, it is not sufficient for people faced with high housing costs.
Now, 43% of poor children in the capital are in private rented accommodation; that has increased from a third 10 years ago. The shift into the private rented sector is happening in large part because the social rented sector is in decline and no longer available for people to live in. People are being diverted into the private rented sector, even though their needs for security and affordability would be addressed far better in the social rented sector.
It gets worse: there has also been a deliberate policy of raising social rents above inflation, and shifting properties that were once attached to a social rent to a higher, “affordable” rent. In recent years, we have seen 100,000 properties converted from social rents to this Orwellian concept of an affordable rent, which traps even families who live in social rented accommodation into paying a much higher proportion of their income as rent than they were. That in itself is a reason why even in the social rented sector an additional 40,000 children now live in poverty.
A second report was launched today by Shout, the campaign for social housing, written for it by Capital Economics. It found that the policy of raising social rents is bad economics, as well as being bad for low-income families, because it reduces people’s ability to earn, and even families in homes for social rent are finding themselves unable to cover their housing costs. They will also increasingly be subject to the caps that flow out of the £25 billion taken out of social security expenditure by the Government.
We know, from the lived experience of British poverty in the last few years, that measures cutting social security, raising housing costs, reducing the availability of social rented housing and cutting vital support services do not work. We know that because poverty is going up, and it is predicted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to rise sharply by 2021. As a consequence of those policies, we anticipate the first sustained increase in inequality in this country since the 1980s. We know from experience abroad that a policy that drives low-income families into high-rent accommodation does not work; it is bad for work incentives, and bad for those families.
The answer to all that—apart from unfreezing benefits, tackling the structural problems with universal credit, and dealing with issues such as the million children who, under universal credit, will lose entitlement to free school dinners—is to tackle the rent burden on families. That is best done by ensuring that low-income people have the opportunity to live in the social rented sector.
This was uttered today by the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, in endorsing the Capital Economics report on the problem of high social rent:
“We have to let the state build and dispel the myth that state intervention is subsidy. It’s not. It’s investment in an asset”.
I do not often agree with leading Conservatives, but I firmly concur with that statement. As a famous song from New York City a few years ago stated, “The rent is too damn high”. Until we can tackle this problem, I am afraid we will be struggling with the problem of rising poverty in London.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on winning the debate and on her speech. We have had a degree of consensus on a number of issues that are critical to tackling child poverty, particularly housing. I want to say quite a bit about housing, but first I want to talk about my constituency.
The Royal Borough of Kingston is often seen as a wealthy borough. It is true that it has some very wealthy parts, but over many years representing three quarters of the borough, I have found that that external perception is inaccurate when it comes to the lives of thousands of people in the borough. We have pockets of severe deprivation. In wards such as Norbiton, where we have the Cambridge estate, Cambridge Gardens and the King Henry estate, people are really struggling, daily. There are also estates in central Surbiton, Chessington and Old Malden where levels of poverty equal those anywhere in the capital.
I often worry that the external perception, whether in City Hall, Whitehall or even the Guildhall in Kingston, means that people do not recognise that there are families in real need. As we do not have some of the social infrastructure found in other boroughs, some children in those struggling families get an even worse deal, because there is not that wider network of support. I am not asking the Government to give us the sort of money for social deprivation that other boroughs might get—that argument would be rejected—but I want the Minister to work with his colleagues and realise that in boroughs such as mine, there are vulnerable families. That needs to be recognised more. If he takes nothing else away from my speech, I hope he takes that point.
Housing issues are as severe in Kingston as in many other boroughs in London, and of course the most vulnerable and low-income families are affected most severely, in numerous ways, many of which have been touched on. To give an example of how that can multiply child poverty, when these families are evicted by their private rented sector landlord, they ask the council for support and are given temporary emergency accommodation outside the borough, sometimes miles away from the children’s schools and where the parents work—and the parents are often in work.
The impact of poverty on those children can be severely affected by the dislocation in how our housing support works. Often they cannot go to school, and in that temporary period, which can last for months, they are often in very poor accommodation. As a result, the school is less able to support that family. That is just one example of how housing policy in London is affecting many people day in, day out, and making the experience of children that much worse.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden talked about the importance of social housing; that has been a general theme. I could not agree more. We need to completely change the whole approach to building houses. For decades, under all Governments, we hoped that the private sector would produce the houses, but if we look over five or six decades of house building, we see that we have only ever had serious increases in housing when the state has been directing and building houses. I think it was the hon. Lady who said that 1968 was the last peak year of house building. The idea that the private sector and the free market will deliver the amount and types of homes that we need to go back to those periods is for the birds. It is just not true.
I am fascinated by the quote from the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association. Maybe we are moving toward an understanding, at least in local government, that the state needs to drive house building; otherwise we will never meet demand, particularly in London, but no doubt also in cities elsewhere.
I hope the Minister will address the need to rethink the fundamentals of our approach to house building. We will not take communities with us and build the number of houses necessary unless councils and the state are allowed to be far more proactive, not just in finances, but in how the whole planning system works.
I end by talking about one of the major poverty reduction programmes in recent decades, how it worked and the lessons we should take from it: the Sure Start project. I found the Sure Start programme, brought in during the first term of the Labour Government, very exciting, because it was trying to take an area-based approach, so that there was no stigma in the services being provided, and to take a more holistic approach, bringing different service providers together in a way we had not seen before. To some extent, it worked. In its first years, there were no Sure Start projects in my constituency, and I went to other boroughs in London to visit them, to see how they were working and to learn about them, because I thought it was an important policy innovation.
There is no doubt that some evidence suggests that for some people, Sure Start was effective. However, we should also look at the evidence that showed that there were poor families with children that it did not reach—particularly what are sometimes called the hard-to-reach families. Sure Start often did not manage to reach those. We need to think not just of area-based poverty programmes, although they still have a role, as Sure Start showed. Those projects that innovated by using a whole series of indicators to try to identify the families who were in most need, most under threat and most vulnerable had some promise.
One of the things I regret in recent years is that some of the innovative programmes outside the Sure Start family that tried to help those who are, in many ways, the most vulnerable in our society, were cut. If we are to make a sustained attack on reducing child poverty, we need to think of policy programmes that will meet the needs of those particular families. Otherwise, we are not providing for the children most in need. I hope the Minister will respond on whether the issue is only area-based programmes, or whether there are targeted, innovative programmes that we should look at as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate, and on the way she has set the scene. She sets a real example to us all as a champion of her constituency and our city.
One of the myths my hon. Friend has buried today is that London is a rich city for the many, rather than just the few. We have seen that, in fact, London has the worst levels of child poverty of any region of the country. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) indicated, what are often thought of as some of the richest boroughs in the centre of London—Westminster, Camden and Islington—are right up there in terms of child poverty levels.
My borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is not far behind: after housing costs are taken into consideration, 35% of children there live in poverty, and 33% do not reach the expected levels of speech and language skills at the age of five. Where children are on free school meals, that rises to 43%, and I have schools that have up to 70% of children on free school meals. If one looks at the worst-affected wards—in my case, the Wormholt and White City ward—the figure for children living in poverty after housing costs is 45%.
As has been said by a number of Opposition Members, housing is perhaps the most significant issue that makes a difference here. If one looks at Wormholt and White City, the figure is 30% before housing costs are taken into consideration—still very high—but 45% afterward. In some ways that is slightly counterintuitive, because it is a ward with high levels of social housing, where one would expect rents to be relatively low, compared with the very high market rents, let alone the cost of purchasing a property, in the area. However, as was indicated, in many ways, social housing is a thing of the past—not only because of the conversion, particularly by some housing associations, of social rents to affordable rents, but because of the sale of council houses, which are then not replaced. We have the obscenity of slum landlords owning sometimes dozens of properties on estates, and renting them out at—or in some cases above—the housing benefit cap, driving families into poverty, as well as making them live in extremely poor conditions.
It is not the case that nothing is being done to address that. I praise my council, Hammersmith and Fulham, which moved to Labour control in 2014. It has done what it can to revive and support Sure Start and, sadly in some ways, to support food banks and open new centres to support advice services. It has done what it can, given the vast local government cuts over that period, to try to alleviate the worst effects of child poverty. I praise the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has also been mentioned. He is trying to tackle low pay, improve childcare and build genuinely affordable housing—very different from his predecessor. They are pushing water uphill, however, given the cuts that have been made.
In an intervention, I said £27 billion had been taken out of social security programmes since 2010. That is a phenomenal sum of money. We have seen the effect across a whole raft of Government policies, deliberately introduced by the coalition Government, and continued by this Government: the two-child rule; the benefit cap; the benefit freeze; and now universal credit.
One figure that caught my eye in the excellent briefings we were given for this debate was evidence from Southwark Council that the average council rent account is £8 in credit; but for universal credit recipients, it is £1,178 in arrears. People are being evicted and are struggling to make ends meet because of the effects of universal credit, particularly the housing elements. Until we see a change in Government policy, or better still a change of Government, the situation will not get better. The prediction is that it will get worse, and that average levels of child poverty will be back well over 40% in a few years’ time.
I conclude by referring to a debate I had in this Chamber on Tuesday, on regeneration and social housing in an area called Earl’s Court and West Kensington, in my and the neighbouring borough. It is billed as the largest onsite development in the world outside China. There, 760 affordable homes and council homes are to be demolished without the promise of a replacement home for all the people living there. Some 7,500 homes are to be built, with not one additional social rented home on that site. When such policies are pursued, it is no wonder that we are dragging people into poverty and not giving any hope to children who are growing up in overcrowded, appalling conditions. That was not an accident or market forces, but the deliberate policy of a Tory Secretary of State, Tory Mayor and Tory council leader, conspiring to ensure that we got fewer genuinely affordable homes.
I do not have time, I am afraid.
The Minister knows that, because he was a deputy Mayor for London at the time, so he might want to address his record, as perhaps might some of the other Members who have spoken. I am afraid to say that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) might want to address his record in government, because that is when this dates back to.
I have 20 seconds left in which to speak, and I would not like to refuse courtesy to the hon. Lady, so I will give way.
I think it should be agreed that housing supply issues are failures of successive Governments. I recall that, between 2000 and 2010, there was a buy-to-let boom, the arrival of huge sums of foreign cash, extremely loose monetary policy, extremely loose borders, the forced divestment of council housing stock to arm’s length management organisations or housing associations, and a very low level of social housing being built—in fact, lower than in the Thatcher years. The hon. Gentleman should have the good grace to take responsibility for that.
I will never be accused of not having good grace. I leave the hon. Lady with one fact: in the last three years in which the Conservatives were in power on Hammersmith and Fulham Council, they actually managed to reduce the number of social homes. That is quite some achievement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing such an important debate.
I have been struck by the passion and clear sense of all the speeches we have heard from Members championing the need to improve the situation of those in poverty. From the stories my hon. Friend told about some of the impacts, I think we will all remember the image of children guarding their school dinner plates with their arms to stop other people taking their food. That is horrific, given the scale of wealth in this country. She made a powerful and moving speech.
I also draw particular attention to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), who, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), talked about her pride, which I share, in the last Labour Government’s record in lifting 1 million children out of poverty. I also draw attention to the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, which was also touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), in talking about how such extreme wealth can sit next to such poverty, and the image that people from outside London have of it.
The debate was prompted by the release of disturbing new statistics by the End Child Poverty coalition, which show that, in some parts of London, more than half of children are now growing up in poverty; in Bethnal Green and Bow it is 54%, and in Poplar and Limehouse it is 53%. The Minister questioned those statistics at the last Work and Pensions questions. I suggest that Government Ministers are in no position to do that, given the Government’s reluctance to publish up-to-date figures on a wide range of social security issues. The coalition Government only agreed to continue to publish data on child poverty at all after being pressured by the Opposition and voluntary organisations working in the field.
However, even the Department for Work and Pensions’ statistics on child poverty show that London has the highest rate of child poverty of any part of the UK. According to DWP figures, 37% of children in London are growing up in poverty after housing costs are taken into account. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that current Government tax and benefit policies will see that rise to 41% over the next two years.
Although the rate of child poverty is highest in inner London, it is clear that child poverty is a London-wide problem. For example, some 45% of children in Edmonton are growing up in poverty, as well as 40% in Enfield North and 37% in Croydon North. It is not only the geographical spread that is the problem but the severity of the child poverty. In 2016-17, 40,000 children in London received helped from food banks, according to the Trussell Trust, which is of course the largest but by no means the only provider of food aid in the UK. The latest figures for this year show a similar level of need.
Free school meals ensure that children in families on low incomes get one hot meal a day, which is vital for their wellbeing and ability to learn. The Labour party would introduce free school meals for all primary school children and all secondary school children whose families claim universal credit. Under Government plans, children in families that claim universal credit will no longer be eligible for free school meals if their families earn more than £7,400 a year, which is such a small sum of money that it is difficult to understand how the Department could come up with that policy. Will the Government step back from introducing a cliff edge for eligibility for free school meals?
Many speakers have highlighted the significance of the high housing costs in London; it is something that those of us who do not live in London find quite astonishing. Last September, the median private rent in London for a one-bed property was £1,250 a month, compared with £595 for England as a whole. The level of private renting is at its highest since the 1970s, and private sector rents in London are more than double the average for England as a whole.
Over the past five years, the cheapest fifth of private rents have increased faster than rents in the sector overall. Although the number of children in social housing living in poverty has risen in recent years, the number of children in private rented accommodation living in poverty tripled over the decade up to 2015-16, by which point more than half of all children in private rented homes were living in poverty.
Seven in 10 households in temporary accommodation in England are in London, and more than 80% of them are households with children. Those children have no security in where they live. Levels of overcrowding in London are more than twice as high as the rest of England, and the rate of overcrowding is especially high for ethnic minority households. That means that children may not have the space to play or the peace and quiet they need to do homework. If there are family tensions, it is harder still for children to escape them.
Just 29,000 homes of all types were built in London per year between 2013-14 and 2015-16, and only 24% were —apparently—affordable, which is down 10% on the previous three years. No homes for social rent were built in London in the current Foreign Secretary’s last year as Mayor of London. The current Mayor has set a target in his London plan of 65,000 new homes a year, half of which will be affordable. He also wants to redefine “affordable”, as the current definition of 80% of market rate is beyond all too many people, as many Members have said.
Government funding for affordable homebuilding in London is still less than half the amount spent in 2009-10. The Chancellor announced an additional £2 billion for affordable housing in the Budget, but the Office for Budget Responsibility later revealed that that came from existing housing pots. The Mayor has called for £2.7 billion a year to fund affordable housing in London. Will the Government ensure that he gets the funding he needs to meet London’s housing need?
High London rents mean low-income families are likely to face a shortfall between their housing benefit and their rent. However, the Government have not only failed to back new homebuilding but also cut local housing allowance for private sector tenants in 2011, and then introduced the benefit cap in 2013, which they lowered further in 2016. Will the Government abolish the benefit cap, as Labour would?
In 2013, the Government also replaced council tax benefit with council tax support. Even families with very low incomes are now generally expected to pay some council tax. In 15 London boroughs, 200,000 low-income residents paid, on average, at least £200 more a year towards their council tax than they would have if they had received council tax benefit. Will the Government recognise the pressure they are putting on the finances of families on low incomes and act to restore council tax benefit?
The result of sharply rising rents and less help with housing costs is that low income families are more at risk of losing their homes, which causes misery, for families with children in particular. The total number of eviction orders rose in the five years to 2015-16. Possession orders, rather than mortgage orders, made up 97% of the total eviction orders in that year. High eviction rates are occurring in boroughs with high proportions of families with children living in the private rented sector and receiving housing benefit. Nine of the 10 boroughs with the highest eviction rates are in outer London.
The long waits that universal credit claimants experience for initial payment put them at particular risk of eviction. Increasing numbers of families with children in the capital are claiming universal credit as the full service is rolled out. There is clear evidence from the Residential Landlords Association that landlords are also increasingly reluctant to let to universal credit claimants in the first place.
The Government announced the removal of the waiting period and said that they would make it easier to get an advance, but they refuse to publish regular statistics on timeliness or advances. I had to table a written question in January to find out that, even under the old system of a six-week wait, one fifth of claimants were still not being paid in full on time, and 13% were not receiving any payment at all. The Government would not say how many people had requested an advance, so although more people are getting them, we do not know the extent of the need.
The Minister questioned the End Child Poverty coalition’s statistics. Since the Minister sets such store by accurate figures, will he give a commitment to publish regular statistics on the timeliness of payments and on how many people both request and receive an advance, so that we know whether the changes the Government introduced are making a difference?
The Government do not publish statistics on households affected by the two-child policy either. Will they commit to doing so? That policy will have a particularly severe impact on some religious communities, where reproduction, use of contraception and family size are determined by beliefs, and where culture is also a factor. Those communities are important parts of London’s population, and some of them, such as the Bangladeshi communities in Tower Hamlets and Newham, are located in areas of high child poverty. A couple may well have planned a large family, then found that their circumstances have changed and that they need to receive social security. Will the Government reverse the pernicious two-child policy?
The Government’s stock answer when called to account on child poverty is that work is the best route out of poverty. Yes, it is better to be in work, but work should pay. That was supposed to be one of the foundations of universal credit. However, cuts to universal credit work allowances will hit families on low incomes hard. It is the case that 58% of people in poverty in London are in a family in which someone is in work; that is up from 44% a decade ago. And 17% of people in in-work poverty live in a household in which all the adults work. During the past decade, average weekly pay in London has fallen. In 2016, just over one fifth of workers in London were low paid, compared with 13% in 2005. There is a range of reasons for that, not least a rise in insecure employment. One third of temporary workers are on a temporary contract because they cannot find a permanent job. The figure is nearly 10% higher than in 2004.
Many parents of very young children want to work, but face the challenge of finding both a job that will fit in with parenting and affordable childcare. A recent Gingerbread study of lone parents in Camden highlighted the fact that very few part-time jobs were advertised on the Government’s own job search portal, with which all claimants have to register. The average cost of childcare in a nursery or from a childminder in London is just over £150 a week—more than £40 a week higher than the average for England.
Child poverty in London is not new. Charles Booth’s maps showing the geography of poverty at the end of the 19th century or Roger Mayne’s photos of 1950s Notting Hill testify to that. However, the End Child Poverty coalition’s statistics are still shocking. Rather than questioning the figures and trying to brush them under the carpet, the Government should react to them by making the tackling of child poverty the priority that it should be.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Sir Henry. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this important and very relevant debate, not least because I spent 16 years as a representative in central London, both as a councillor and as a London Assembly member—where I shared a constituency with the hon. Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—so I am well acquainted with some of the problems. Indeed, I started my career as a councillor as deputy chairman of the housing committee on Westminster City Council, dealing with the heavy investment that we made in the Mozart estate in Queen’s Park at the end of the 1990s, as the hon. Member for Westminster North may remember. This issue has been of importance to me in the past and remains so.
I emphasise from the outset that the Government are committed—the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden referred to this—to building a country that works for everyone, where no one and no community are left behind. I completely agree that we must continue to provide appropriate support for the least well-off and the disadvantaged in our society, so that we can make a meaningful and lasting difference to their lives and outcomes and those of their children.
However, I was disappointed to hear the hon. Lady say, as I think she did on the record, that work is no longer the route out of poverty. The Government believe that work offers families the best opportunity to get out of poverty and become self-reliant. That is why we are undertaking the most ambitious reform to the welfare system in decades—so that it supports people to find and stay in work.
The evidence about the impact of worklessness on children’s outcomes, in both the short and the long term, is clear. In 2014-15, 75% of children in workless families failed to reach the expected standard at GCSE, compared with 39% for all working families and 52% for low-income working families.
No, I am short of time. As adults, children who grow up in workless families are more likely to be workless themselves, compared with children who grow up with working parents, which creates an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage. It is therefore vital that we continue with our policies to encourage work and to address the often complex employment barriers faced by many disadvantaged families.
A number of hon. Members raised concerns about working families who are in poverty. However, the evidence is clear. Adults in workless families are four times more likely to be in poverty than those in working families. Children living in workless households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those in which all the adults work. Children in lone-parent families are three times less likely to be in poverty if their parent is in full-time work. And the chances of a child being in poverty if one parent works full time and the other part time is one in 20.
We are making good progress. Nationally, there are 954,000 fewer workless households and 608,000 fewer children living in such households now, compared with 2010. In London, there are 197,000 fewer children in workless households than there were seven years ago. By 2016, the number of children in long-term workless households in London was less than half what it was in 2010. The latest data shows that the London employment rate has increased by 7.1 percentage points since 2010. Comparable national figures show a slightly lower increase of 5 percentage points, so London is doing better.
Universal credit is at the heart of the reforms and the positive change that the Government are committed to driving. Through universal credit, the welfare system is, for the first time, providing working people with the opportunity to progress in work and to work more hours so that they can increase their earnings and become financially secure. Once fully rolled out, it will boost employment by about 250,000 and generate £7 billion in economic benefits a year.
We are also committed to tackling poverty by helping people with the cost of living. The national living wage, rising to £7.83 an hour in 2018-19, has given the UK’s lowest earners their fastest pay rise in 20 years. The right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) referred to the London living wage in glowing terms with regard to the current Mayor, but of course that project was started well before he came to office. Indeed, I am pleased to say that the largest expansion of the London living wage came when I was responsible for it at City Hall, between 2012 and 2016. However, that is not the only measure that we have taken. We have cut income tax for more than 30 million people and taken 4 million low earners out of income tax altogether. A typical basic rate taxpayer will now pay £1,000 less in tax compared with 2010.
Universal credit, with its generous childcare offer, has been designed to support parents to work after the birth of a child. Working parents on universal credit can have up to 85% of their childcare costs reimbursed, which is worth up to £1,108 a month for someone with two or more children. That is in addition to their entitlement of up to 30 hours of free childcare a week.
Hon. Members have raised serious concerns about child poverty rates, including the key findings in the End Child Poverty report, which came out a couple of weeks ago. Let me take this opportunity to emphasise that whichever way we look at child poverty rates—relative or absolute, and before or after housing costs—the headline national statistics published by the DWP show that in London all are lower than they were in 2010. Across the country, 600,000 fewer people are in absolute poverty now, compared with 2010—the figure is at a record low—and 200,000 fewer children are in absolute poverty.
Let me turn to the figures used by End Child Poverty. Those are projections based on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data from 2014, and even the academics who produced the analysis have pointed out the limitations in the method. More recent data, published by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs since the report, shows that rather than rising, the proportion of children in low-income families in London fell in 2015 to an estimated 19%, compared with 24% in 2014. Indeed, every parliamentary constituency saw falls between 2014 and 2015. That includes some of the areas highlighted by the report. For example, in Bethnal Green and Bow there was a fall of 12 percentage points and in Poplar and Limehouse a fall of 11 percentage points. There was a fall of 6 percentage points in Hackney South and Shoreditch, as there was in Westminster North and in Enfield North. The data and the projection from the data in 2014 were immediately contradicted by the data subsequently published for 2015.
Let me deal quickly with some of the specifics that were raised. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) raised the issue of child poverty targets. Some hon. Members will remember that there was recognition by the Government in the past that making a long-term difference to the lives of disadvantaged children required an approach that went beyond a focus on the welfare system. That is why the Government repealed the income-related targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and replaced them with new statutory measures of parental worklessness and, critically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) mentioned, children’s educational attainment. That is vital; all the evidence points to its being critical to long-term welfare and prosperity. Those are the two areas that can make the biggest difference.
A number of hon. Members raised issues about housing. The Government have recognised that there is an issue with the housing market, and a huge amount of work is going on at the newly named Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. On standards, we agree that everyone deserves a decent home. That is why the numbers of homes that have been brought up to standard in both the public and the private sectors have increased very significantly, and the numbers that are below standard now lie at record lows. On housing generally, hon. Members will know that a significant amount of extra money has been put into the Government house building programme. That now stands at £9 billion, and no doubt there will be more initiatives to come from the Ministry of Housing.
We are also supporting, I believe, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Westminster North. It will give tenants the right to take legal action against landlords who do not fulfil their duties.
It was slightly disappointing to hear from the Opposition a fairly stout defence of the previous benefits system. As far as I can tell, that was a fraudulent system, perpetrating a lie upon the poor. It was designed to trap them in poverty. That is why we saw very little change in long-term poverty, which is what we are dedicated to tackling. I can reassure hon. Members that we are not complacent and particularly not in London, and we will be doing our best over the years to come to try to address the problems that have been raised.
I love my city. I love my constituency. I was born in it and have always lived in it. It does the Minister no honour to set up an Aunt Sally on work when he knows very well that there is no Labour Member who does not believe in work. We believe that work should pay. For many of the people I meet in my constituency every week, work is not paying. They have nowhere to live. They have problems with food. Those are not stories I tell because I love to tell them. I say them because I see them. Unless we do something about what we see, we will all be discredited.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered child poverty in London.