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Immigration Act

Volume 776: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by the Immigration Minister to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

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

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

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

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

My Lords, first, I refer noble Lords to my registered interests. I further declare that the local authority that I am a member of has taken some of the children from Calais in recent weeks. I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question in the other place given earlier today.

We are dealing with children who are alone and in the most vulnerable of situations, and it is regrettable that a broad provision is being tightly restricted in a way that goes against the spirit of what Parliament agreed. Why are the Government restricting the eligibility of children over the age of 12 to those from two countries only, whereas for those under 12 that does not apply? Whether they are aged 11 or 13, the one thing they have in common is that they are children at great risk of harm. However, with this policy, if you happen to be 13 and are not Syrian or Sudanese, the UK is going to turn its back on you. How is that in the best interests of the child? Could the Minister please tell the House?

My Lords, it will perhaps be helpful if I repeat the criteria on which these children will be considered. We will be considering: all those children aged 12 or under, not just certain children from certain countries; all children referred to us by the French authorities who are assessed as being at high-risk of sexual exploitation; and those nationalities most likely to qualify for refugee status in the UK aged 15 or under.

My Lords, this is a bitterly disappointing Statement. Can the Minister confirm that, when the Government announced their response to Section 67 of the Immigration Act, the Government said they would respect the letter and spirit of that amendment? My contention is that the Government are doing neither. How can one say that young children refugees fleeing from Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan, for example, are not eligible to claim refugee status on a statistical basis? That is a breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Can the Minister please think again about this depressing Statement?

My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Lord is disappointed in the Statement, because he and I have worked so productively over the last few weeks and months on Calais. In October, we updated our country guidance on Eritrea to reflect the court judgment, but we cannot base a threshold on possible future grant rates. The threshold is based on overall grant rates for the year ending June 2016 and the nationalities that have a grant rate of 75% or higher are Sudanese and Syrian.

My Lords, I am still very confused. Having made an arbitrary decision on eligibility based on country of origin, which has no relevance to an individual’s asylum claim, can the Minister explain why the Government are excluding children who potentially would have a valid asylum claim here in the UK?

My Lords, we are not basing the criteria on country of origin. I repeat that we will consider: all children aged 12 and under; all children referred to us by the French authorities assessed as being at high risk of sexual exploitation; and those nationalities most likely to qualify for refugee status in the UK aged 15 or below.

My Lords, Section 67(3) says that this will,

“be in addition to … children under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme”.

Will the Minister tell us how many children have been received under that provision thus far? In additional, will she say something about the criteria she mentioned? She said that children at risk of sexual exploitation will be included, but why does that not extend to children who might be trafficked, or involved in labour exploitation or other provisions of the modern slavery legislation?

My Lords, to answer the noble Lord’s last question first, any child at risk of sexual exploitation—that might include trafficking—will be a top priority, no matter what country they are from; ditto any child aged 12 or under. On the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, there have thus far been more than 3,000 people transferred, and half of those are children.

My Lords, what is the Government’s budgeted average cost for relocating in this country these vulnerable children? What provision is being made to support local authorities, on which the bulk of this expenditure will, presumably, fall?

My Lords, we have increased by a third the funding to local authorities. I cannot give a specific figure for a specific child because it will depend. It is around about £32,000 per child, but that is an average figure. I cannot give a specific figure for a specific child because it will be different in different cases, depending on whether the child is to be fostered, taken into local authority care, or here as part of a community sponsorship scheme. It is different in every case. I hope the noble Lord takes what I am saying in a qualified way.

My Lords, to say I was shocked at the guidance issued by the Government would be an understatement. It will come as a bitter disappointment to all those voluntary organisations that have worked so hard with children, during the demolition of the camp in Calais, to keep them in the system and stop them absconding and going missing. We know that is a risk; this Statement will make it impossible for them to keep the children in the reception centres in the French regions. They will abscond, make their way back to Calais and try their luck on the backs of lorries again. What advice did the Government take on redefining a child as being aged 15 or under?

My Lords, while those children are in France, they are under the care and jurisdiction of the French. I have said this over and again and I cannot make the point strongly enough. The French have safeguarding systems that are among the best in the world. We are not talking about countries where these children are at risk. The French are doing everything they can to ensure these children do not abscond or jump on to the back of lorries, as the noble Baroness said.

My Lords, there are, I understand, something like 140 reception centres in France to which Calais and Dunkirk children might have been, or are being, moved. Can the Minister assure the House that all of these reception centres will be visited by British officials in order to identify both family reunification cases and those who qualify under Section 67 of our Act?

My Lords, I can absolutely confirm to the noble Lord that there are, in fact, more than 160 reception centres. Officials in this country are engaging very closely in identifying exactly those children whom the noble Lord talked about.

My Lords, if the Minister is correct in her statement about funding for these children within local authorities, why have many local authorities objected to the shortage of funding for children? Does the Minister agree with me that some of the most generous local authorities that have come forward to help these children have their own extreme needs in their local community? If local communities are to be welcoming of these children, they must believe that it is not at the expense of cutting down on services for themselves or their families. The Government should provide funding in full for the life of the child so that this scheme works well.

My Lords, I take the opportunity to commend those local authorities that have been so very generous in offering support to these children. I refer the noble Baroness to the Written Ministerial Statement issued by Robert Goodwill on 1 November stating how we will evaluate the need for any additional training required by foster carers and support workers in looking after unaccompanied children. We take our role as a corporate parent very seriously; local authorities do as well. While those children are in local authority care, they should receive exactly the same high quality of care as our own children do.