Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this debate on Project 17’s report, Not seen, Not heard. In doing so, I draw attention to my interests as listed on the register and, in particular, to the research support I receive from the Good Faith Partnership’s RAMP project on immigration policy.
In this report, Project 17 highlights the way that vulnerable families and children are trapped between overstretched local authorities and punitive immigration controls. As with the ongoing harm caused by the two-child limit, it seems that cost-cutting and punitive notions of control are prioritised over the flourishing and protection of families. We need a radical change of direction away from seeing vulnerable children as a burden. Like many in this Chamber, I believe that a policy built on the gift and voices of children is not a naive aspiration but the very definition of good policy.
Let us be clear: the interaction of immigration enforcement and welfare is never going to be simple. There are no neat solutions to all the problems presented by the report. But the relationship between immigration enforcement and welfare is currently malfunctioning, trapping many in destitution. The requirement for no recourse to public funds affects any person who is “subject to immigration control”; that is, a non-EEA national who meets one of the following conditions: they have leave to remain, but are subject to a NRPF restriction; they have leave to remain given as a result of a maintenance undertaking; they need leave to remain in the UK, but do not have it; or, in some cases, they are appealing a refusal to vary their leave.
Identifying the appropriate approach with those in the latter two categories is complex, but I wonder whether we might just get rid of the first two. I was in a round table on the immigration White Paper last week, and many sectors highlighted how British migration policy seems to be built on the false premise that there will always be a near-infinite demand for visas and that nothing will put people off wanting to come to the UK. The use of NRPF on legal migration seems a symptom of that approach. If you are legally here, you are legally here. We should, by all means, have robust qualifying criteria for granting leave to remain but, if we grant it to people, this should mean that we will support them in an emergency. If we are willing to accept their contribution, we should be willing to commit to caring for them.
Also of particular concern are reports of people who have no recourse to public funds despite being here precisely because human rights grounds have been granted. It is a cruel irony that those making in-country human rights applications based on Article 8 and the right to family life do so with no recourse and no legal aid. I recognise that people often apply on these grounds simply to frustrate removal, but that is not sufficient reason to punish everyone applying in this way.
The no recourse to public funds requirement disproportionately affects those likely to be discriminated against by other parts of the system. Among those subject to NRPF that engaged with the Unity Project between September 2017 and April 2019, 90% were black African or Caribbean, 87% were women, 96% had dependents, and 76% were single parents; 85% had a British child. The Unity Project also highlights how the threat of destitution can trap people in coercive and abusive relationships.
There is so much about NRPF that demands our attention, but the focus of Project 17’s report is its impact on children. The report identifies that the current safeguards are not working. Section 17 of the Children Act places a duty on local authorities to uphold the welfare of children in need, but Joel, aged 9, told Project 17:
“We had to keep going to McDonalds every night and we would also go to A&E. I would have to wear my school clothes and sleep like that. They would say we have to sleep where the people wait but it’s just like lights and there is nothing colourful there. The chairs were hard. You know when you just sleep in the waiting room? I felt sorry for my mum because she had to stay up and my head had to be on her lap. She had to stay awake, her eyes were open like 24/7, all night and all day so she could watch over me. It was hard for her but also hard for me”.
The report found that Joel is not alone in having been left street homeless. Where accommodation is provided, Project 17 noted that it is often unsuitable. As Tayo, aged 9, says:
“We sit on the floor … because we don’t have tables and chairs”.
The process to access support is difficult on both parent and child. Amir, aged 8, told Project 17 that he was made to feel like, “I committed a crime”, and, “intimidated”. The presence of immigration officers in local authority assessments disincentives people from accessing this vital support in the first place. Project 17 found wider evidence of local authorities failing to follow statutory guidance, as well as Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in not prioritising the voice of the child. A bedroom to rest safely in; a table to eat together at and the attention of adults; safety, community and attention—these surely are foundational to a thriving childhood. We need to do more to defend them from the pressures of border enforcement.
As a first step, I ask the Minister and other noble Lords to join me in encouraging local authorities to sign up to Project 17’s children’s charter, which sets out some basic principles to guide how local authorities should support people in these situations. I hope the other recommendations made in the report can also be heeded.
As we expect a new Prime Minister and a new approach to migration policy, I hope that Parliament will have the opportunity to ask how policy might be put in the service of vulnerable families and children. There are, rightly, strong voices articulating what different business sectors need from our migration policy. Less prominent but also present are those who highlight the needs of local communities and of many newcomers to the UK. We hear much less about those whom the migration system forces into precarious living. We hear even less from those directly affected themselves.
I thank Project 17 and the children that it works with for all that they have taught us in this report, however harrowing some of it is to read. It is my hope that they will find allies in this Chamber who will advocate for immigration policy built around human dignity and the rights of the child. Regardless of their immigration status and that of their parents, these children are beloved gifts, made in the image of God. They are worthy of safety, community and attention, and their presence is qualification enough for us to provide it.
What data is currently collected regarding these children? Does the Home Office know how many children are affected by NRPF? What assessment has been conducted on the impact of the policy specifically on children?
Easy answers are unlikely ever to be found in the space between migration and welfare policy. However, we can begin to approach better solutions only if we are focused on the goal, which must be the flourishing of communities, families and children. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the report, and to working with her and other colleagues to ensure that we treat these children, as we want to treat all children, with full dignity.
The right reverend Prelate has reminded us that it is 30 years since Section 17 of the Children Act placed a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area. Today’s debate, against the background of so many remarkable stories in the report, is about those in exceptional poverty; those at high risk of hopelessness, exploitation and abuse; those children and families without recourse to public funds; and the vital need for all concerned to listen to the voices of children.
Of course, the key finding of the deeply moving report by Project 17, Not Seen, Not Heard, goes far further than immigration issues, housing or homelessness. It has at its roots a challenge to us to listen to children and young people and, by listening, to act. So how should we listen? How best can we communicate, learn and engage? Ever since my youngest son ran the marathon to raise awareness and money for the outstanding charity YoungMinds, springing as it did from his deeply felt concern about the well-being of children and the growing incidence of mental ill-health among young people, I have learned that our concern should be not just for the poorest in society but for all those children whose voices go unheard—all those who are legally here.
As YoungMinds recognises, an estimated three children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health problem, while 90% of school leaders reported an increase in the number or students experiencing anxiety or stress and low mood or depression over the last five years, yet fewer than one in three children and young people with a diagnosable mental health condition get access to NHS care and treatment. Since 2017, the YoungMinds “Wise Up” campaign has called for a rebalancing of the education system so that the well-being of all young people is as important as their academic achievement. Schools should not be expected to do the job of mental health services, but they have a crucial role to play in promoting good mental health in everything they do. It is time for important changes to the Ofsted framework. In that context, I ask the Minister if she will talk to her colleagues so that an outstanding school, for all children, is seen as one that prioritises the well- being of its students as much as its academic success.
I would also be grateful if the Minister could update the House on progress made following the Green Paper on children’s mental health, in which mental health support teams are to act as a link with local children and young people’s mental health services and be supervised by NHS staff. Surely an aim to roll out just 20% to 25% over the next five years means that the majority of all our children, and all our immigrant children, who need help will not be supported. When will we listen to the remaining 75%?
Our focus needs to be on challenging decision-makers to listen to and act upon the evidence of vulnerable children and young people. As Vicky Johnson wrote in the abstract for her exceptional article, Moving Beyond Voice in Children and Young People’s Participation, in seeking to understand if and how children and youth input was valued and acted upon by adults:
“Each case rested on the same value proposition: that inclusion of children and youth is critical to participatory democracy and so incorporating their views can move societies towards improved policies and services for”,
all children, all immigrant children, all young people,
“and a culture of mutual respect in intergenerational relationships”.
To me, creating participatory spaces and building dialogue and trust between children and adults are necessary preconditions for child and youth-centred transformational change in any society, particularly here at home, where such influence can be brought to bear.
Poor immigrant families are a prominent presence in the public realm but rarely have a voice. As Gill Main, who is undertaking excellent work at the University of Leeds in conjunction with the Child Poverty Action Group, wrote, children,
“rarely have the opportunity to influence how they are portrayed and to shape interventions purportedly designed to help them”.
To shape change, we need to shift our focus from what the poorest in society are doing and how they should change, towards listening to their perspectives on what they need and how society could be more fairly organised.
I was struck by Dave performing “Thiago Silva” at Glastonbury 10 days ago as he reached out to a 15 year-old boy, Alex, to join him on stage and accompany him through that complex rap in which Thiago Silva, the Brazil and Paris St Germain iconic footballer, who was once left almost for dead with tuberculosis in a small room in Russia, was recognised. Here, music became the language for Dave and Alex, representing a generation whose communication is through music. Today, I have spoken all afternoon on amendments to the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill to ensure that there is a legacy of listening to young people, inspiring them and lifting them out of depression and, often, away from the escalator to crime, through the medium of sport.
We have an overriding duty to help those immigrant children with ways to escape their daily struggles, and to provide hope—not just to dream about a future but to use everything in our power so they can have a future and discover what they can be; to find means of advocacy, mentoring and engagement. We have an especial duty to help those child refugees who have nothing, forced to leave their country because of war or for religious or political reasons, reaching out while we as a society too often fail to take their hand and listen, fail to place them at the centre of our policy-making and fail to use our two ears in proportion to our one mouth when in their company.
My Lords, the consequences for children of the hostile environment created in a cold and calculated manner by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary are laid out in Project 17’s powerful report, and they are deeply concerning. We should all be grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for securing this timely debate. The report provides a stark insight into how the current immigration system is impacting on the lives of children and forcing them into poverty and towards destitution. I commend the author’s research methods and presentation of these findings, which provide a powerful platform for the voices of children so often silenced and overlooked. I very much hope that as many local authorities as possible will sign up to the charter, as advocated in the report.
Not Seen, Not Heard highlights that, lacking a legal right to work, many families are pushed towards homelessness and made highly vulnerable to exploitation. I want to draw attention to the common experiences of families with no recourse to public funds, who are the focus of the report. People seeking asylum in the UK are effectively prohibited from working and, until recently, the Home Office’s target time for decisions on asylum cases was six months. Yet immigration statistics released in May revealed that the number of main applicants waiting over six months for a decision on their claim had reached 46%. The system is certainly not working—at least, not for asylum seekers.
A large number have good qualifications but are banned from working, making it all but impossible to provide adequate care for their families. Research by the Lift the Ban coalition suggests that the current system is wasteful, as it fails to harness the skills and talents of often well-educated people. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recognised this failing, stating that allowing asylum seekers in the UK greater access to the labour market would not only increase individuals’ self-reliance but help to provide skills that the economy needs.
The UK has the lengthiest restrictions in Europe on people seeking asylum gaining the right to work. Spain, the Netherlands and even the USA allow work after six months; in Germany and Switzerland, it is three months; in Canada, asylum seekers can find work from day one. In this country, asylum seekers must wait a minimum of 12 months before they are given the right to work. There is public support for looking at asylum seekers’ right to work more holistically and in a way that better respects their human dignity. Will the Minister commit to a review of government policy and allow all people seeking asylum and their adult dependants the right to find a job and support themselves?
The Not Seen, Not Heard report illustrates the effects on women of being left in poverty. They are often forced to stay in situations of domestic abuse as they do not have the resources to support themselves or their children independently. A significant longer-term barrier to work for many people seeking asylum, and another which disproportionately affects women, is a dearth of free and accessible classes in English for speakers of other languages, commonly referred to as ESOL provision. Even where it is available, too often women are unable to access it due to inadequate or non-existent childcare.
According to recent research carried out by Refugee Action for its report Turning Words into Action, more than 75% of parents said that lack of childcare had prevented them attending English lessons. Resources must be made available to address such impediments to learning. How can we expect people to integrate if we fail to support them to learn English? The Refugee Action report showed that in England government funding for ESOL suffered a shocking real-terms cut of almost 60% in a decade. More comprehensive strategies for ESOL exist in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is entirely unacceptable for the quality of English language teaching for refugees and asylum seekers to depend on what part of the UK they happen to be in.
The Government’s 2018 Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper contained welcome proposals and acknowledged the vital importance of English for integration, while last year’s immigration White Paper committed to,
“an ambitious and well-funded English language strategy to ensure that everyone in this country, especially those with newly recognised refugee status, are supported to speak the same language”.
Someone should tell that to Boris Johnson who, only three days ago, demanded that immigrants should learn English to integrate better. His ignorance would be amusing if this was not such a serious issue. Mr Johnson should look no further than the Governments he has been part of, who have presided over a cut in ESOL funding from £212 million in 2008 to just £105 million last year. If he does realise his life’s ambition to be Prime Minister, it will be instructive to discover whether he remembers his demand and whether he will put money where his mouth was to help bring it about.
Leaving people isolated without the ability to speak English can have a detrimental effect on their mental health and well-being. Preventing them taking up employment forces them closer to destitution and towards the shocking living conditions laid out so starkly in Project 17’s report. As that report makes clear, because families are offered insufficient financial support due to their immigration status, children are bearing the brunt, too often living in abject levels of poverty. By their inaction, the Government are flouting their commitments to children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I have highlighted two areas that could improve the lives of many people: granting asylum seekers the right to work and increased and accessible provision of ESOL and childcare. However, these issues are part and parcel of the same policies that are punishing children from families with no recourse to public funds. Urgent action is needed from the Government to reform our inhumane immigration system. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps are to be taken to achieve the crucial changes that would improve the lives of so many. Adopting the recommendations of Project 17’s excellent report would be an effective start.
My Lords, this is not the first time the Minister and I have discussed the issues raised in this debate. This is about trying to come to an understanding that is humane, kind and caring.
My predecessor from the same area of north Wales was David Lloyd George. One of his best-remembered comments, made after the First World War, was that we must build,
“a fit country for heroes to live in”.
That is not what I want. I want a world fit for children to live in, a world where the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is respected in all parts. We talk of so many people who, because of various circumstances, do not receive this care. This could be because of famine, disease, conflict, poverty and so much else. I think the UN’s latest figure was that about 66 million people are in some sort of statelessness. There are nearly 100,000 unaccompanied children in Europe alone. I would love to say that we can resolve all these problems and help every child, but we do not have a magic wand. However, we do have the ability to remove many obstacles and transform the world of thousands of children.
On a worldwide scale, in the last two months, the conflict in Syria has led to 544 deaths, 100 of which were children. In the same area, unregistered migrants in Turkey have been rounded up and many have been returned to areas where death is a great possibility. On the other side of the Atlantic, on the Mexico-United States border, we have pictures of a little girl drowning in her father’s arms and we read of the President’s intention to round up unregistered immigrants. We already have disturbing reports of detention camps with no bedding or washing facilities, where children are separated from their families and sleep on concrete floors. Some have compared these camps to concentration camps. We must be in contact with the United States authorities to bring an end to such terrible conditions.
But would the UK treat its asylum seekers any better? If we distance ourselves from Europe and co-operation with European countries, will things be better? If we give up our co-operation with countries such as Italy, Greece and France, will conditions improve? Will the kids have a better life? Will the Minister tell me how? How will Brexit improve the condition of unaccompanied children in Europe? Will things improve in any way, or will Brexit just make matters more difficult? How will Brexit affect the work of the churches, especially the Catholic Church, and their pan-European activity to help refugees? There are many other organisations which deserve the most wonderful praise for all the work they are doing. They know no borders, but the UK is now guilty, with the whole attitude of the hostile environment, of digging ditches instead of building bridges. We are doing something that in itself will cause children to suffer.
The worst suffering of children was probably during the last world war. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem commemorates the atrocities. Some 6 million Jewish people were exterminated, including nearly 2 million children. At the memorial, you go into a dark tunnel and there are lights, each of which represents a child, and their names are read out. It is terrible that the world has treated its children this way. I pray, “Father, forgive” when I think of so much that has happened. The whole situation is one that we must avoid in the future, as one part of our political establishment seeks to divide, rather than unite and co-operate. We must look at the Home Office, and the decisions that create heartache when families are threatened with deportation. Even though I have been promised changes, the latest figure is that over 50% of Home Office decisions are overturned on appeal. This must cause great sadness, even to kids, who wonder what is happening, who at school are asked, “What does your father do?”, and say, “He’s not allowed to work. He’s got to be here 12 months. He might be able to work then”. They come into school knowing they have no money to go on trips and no clothes that could be described as their best.
I brought this up 10 years ago, and I say this directly to the Minister: what difference would it make if people were allowed to work after three months instead of after 12 months? I want her to answer that tonight. What difference would it make? People who work have dignity, they have funds, they have opportunity and hope, yet the Government insist that they will not be allowed to work until they have been here for 12 months. I sometimes work very hard with the Citizens of the World Choir. It is made up of refugees and friends: there are about 40 or 50 refugees there, from about 26 countries. They sing together, they work together and they hope together. Last week was a great week for the choir, because two members had leave to remain. There was jubilation in that rehearsal room, because they had a bit of hope to share. The first thing that the girl said was, “Now I can work”. She did not want to sponge or to undermine anything the Government were doing. She wanted to work. So many of them are able—they have qualifications, they are nurses, doctors and teachers—and they are being denied the right to become the sort of people who have the respect that their status deserves.
I ask the Minister, from the bottom of my heart: will she, for once, meet me to discuss this? We have a promise to meet, but that is about another case. Somehow, we must restore people’s dignity. We can, and it will not cost us a penny. We would benefit, because they would pay taxes and national insurance contributions. Will the Government now please change their attitude? We need a change in immigration regulations, a change that would transform lives. There is so much that we could do. We could remove the threat of deportation on reaching 18 years of age. We could restore legal advice to those who have nowhere else to turn, and at the Home Office, we could avoid these wrong and heart-breaking decisions. A positive outlook and a generosity of spirit could help build that world fit for children to live in. We can take positive steps. Why are this Government not doing so?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. I must confess that there was a point, about three minutes ago, when I hoped beyond hope that he would go into song and sing about these refugees and these children. Perhaps that should be for another time; I am not sure what it says in the Chamber handbook about the appropriateness of that. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for initiating this discussion, and declare an interest as a governor of Coram, which has among its many activities dealing with children—with whom this report is concerned—the Coram Children’s Legal Centre.
I commend Project 17 on a timely and truly shocking report. Noble Lords do not need to read the whole thing; the conclusions and recommendations on pages 44 and 45 are hard-hitting, painfully clear and, for me, and I suspect for many others who care deeply about the welfare of children, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. Our excellent Library briefing moves sequentially from the Project 17 report at the beginning seamlessly into the Government’s overview of the Immigration Act 2016, and there, at the bottom of the first page, the Government state:
“The act will restrict the support we give to people whose claims for asylum have been unconfirmed”—
note that, “unconfirmed”—
“and their dependants … We are also simplifying”—
why do I want to reach for a hard hat whenever I read “simplify” in a government document?—
“the basis on which local authorities in England can support migrants without immigration status. We will continue to meet all of our obligations towards asylum seekers, refugees and children, but equally we should be expecting illegal migrants to leave the UK rather than providing access to support”.
Then, at the bottom of page 2, the Government state that,
“the costs of implementing measures in this act are compensated by the benefits”.
The then Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, described the Immigration Act as a Bill that,
“will build an immigration system that truly benefits Britain”.
If you read this report, one of a sorry procession of reports and stories continuously eroding public confidence in the Home Office and in our whole approach to immigration—let alone how we choose to treat certain children—it is hard not to be moved and hard to resist the temptation to become intemperate, and even indignant. What a huge irony it is that our outgoing Prime Minister, who devoted so much time and effort to achieving her breakthrough Modern Slavery Act, should also have presided over a Home Office that has evolved and instituted a barrage of initiatives that have created an environment in which it appears that some Home Office officials feel empowered to apply a form of modern slavery to those they view potentially as illegal immigrants—both adults and their children.
I suspect that, like me, many noble Lords have genuine sympathy for the Minister—and the Minister who sits beside her—who has had to stand again and again at the Dispatch Box and explain what so often appear the unintended consequences of ill-thought through and poorly executed initiatives and regulations. It is interesting to note the body language of her predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, whom I have seen around the House. All I will say is that her facial expression and body language make me feel that a very large weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She seems an awful lot happier. I have not asked her, but that is what I imply.
Windrush has become shorthand for what appears to many outsiders an endemic and institutional failure of the moral compass that is so vital to ensure that there is an appropriate social, judicial and responsible culture in the Home Office. I was talking earlier today to a noble Lord who shall remain nameless but with whom I share an office—so noble Lords can look that up and work it out. He was the head of another government department, not the Home Office. I asked him whether what has been going on in the Home Office was unusual and particular. He assured me that it was not at all unusual, and that it was the department of all departments where one spends most of one’s time firefighting, standing at the Dispatch Box unexpectedly and having to defend things that probably one had never heard about until about eight hours previously. So apparently this is business as normal—but the fact that it is business as normal does not make it morally acceptable.
I cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like to work in some of the units on the front line, whether in the Home Office or in the local authorities to which our current legislation delegates so much of the nitty-gritty detail that can have a profound and sometimes devastating effect on the children whose voices we hear in the Project 17 report. Should the Minister remain in her post, I will give her due warning. I had a discussion yesterday with the noble Lord, Lord Porter, who stepped down from his chairmanship of the Local Government Association on Monday, having devoted the preceding three years to a very successful campaign focused on social care that resulted in a series of initiatives, including the report of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. After this campaign the issue appears to be firmly on the political agenda. My warning to the Minister is: guess what the LGA’s next campaign will be? It will be to focus on the interaction between local authorities and the children they are asked to look after. So the Minister is warned: this is coming quickly down the road.
I appeal to the Minister to consider the following questions. Does she genuinely feel that the hostile environment has been helpful and, more importantly, effective? Have the Government done any detailed analysis to measure whether it has been successful? Does she genuinely believe that she can uphold the UK’s duties to children while presiding over a policy that denies some of them access to services and leaves some of them in destitution?
In preparing for this debate, I entered the terms “Home Office” and “Children” into a search engine. The results were sobering and shocking. One could try to explain them away by citing biased algorithms, but I think we all know that the excuse will not wash. So I appeal to the Minister, to her senior officials, to her ministerial colleagues and, perhaps most importantly, to her conscience to listen to the voices of these children and then reflect deeply on the policies that appear to be having such a defining and negative impact on their lives. I contend that the legal status of parents should have no bearing whatever on how their children are treated.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for this debate and for the contributions of other noble Lords this evening—and to Project 17 for highlighting the implications for children of the Government’s immigration policy.
I appreciate that this is a difficult situation for the Home Office and for local authorities. I have to take issue with Project 17’s report, which refers to:
“The government’s commitment to creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants”.
It was supposed to be about creating a hostile environment for illegal migrants, not all migrants. However, the reality is that the Government have created a hostile environment for all undocumented migrants.
I do not know whether the Minister will repeat what she has said on previous occasions. To be honest, I am not concerned about whether the hostile environment began under a Labour, coalition or Conservative Government, nor whether the new term “compliant environment” is simply a new label for the same culture or a genuine attempt to change the culture at the Home Office. As anyone who has studied business management will tell you, culture is the most difficult aspect of any organisation to change, and the evidence suggests that the culture at the Home Office continues to be one of deporting given the slightest discrepancy in an undocumented migrant’s application, and of imposing no recourse to public funds where the Home Office is unable to deport them. As my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno said, one piece of evidence that the culture still exists is the fact that more than 50% of appeals against Home Office immigration decisions are successful.
I fully accept that the Government cannot allow unfettered access to the UK to all who want to come here, and that there must be rules on immigration and thorough investigations into whether an undocumented migrant meets those rules. But surely any civilised society should provide whatever means are necessary to establish the truth of an application, and should provide a reasonable standard of living while that truth is determined.
This is not about relaxing the Immigration Rules to allow anyone into the country. This is about providing a fair system that allows equality of arms to the applicant and the Home Office and does not lean on the applicant, the applicant’s family and, most of all, the children in the hope that they will give up and leave.
As the report clearly shows, the in many cases devastating consequences for the children caught up in these cases are a result of the Government’s approach and the Home Office’s culture of, “If in doubt, deport—or, if you can’t deport yet, make it so difficult that they’ll want to leave”. This report is about the symptoms of immigration policy. We need to address the causes.
These children are the innocent bystanders in the battle between their parents and the Home Office, and the safety net of Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 is giving way because of the financial strain that is being put on local authorities by cuts in the central government grant. In the same way that the Home Office is under pressure to reduce net migration—from the likes of the Brexit Party, UKIP or whatever the latest incarnation of xenophobic, right-wing populism is—local authorities are under pressure to reduce expenditure in every department because of a lack of funding.
Of course, it is grossly unfair that children should be treated in this way—but by the same token we do not want to differentiate between those seeking permanent leave to remain who have no children and those who have. If in every case applicants were treated fairly and supported for however long the Home Office took to decide on permanent leave to remain, the issues in this report would not arise.
Perhaps I am being cynical. In the equation of, “How many votes will this policy win us and how many will it lose us?”, the cost-benefit analysis of supporting and being decent to undocumented migrants may well come out as a negative. And, of course, none of those involved—applicants and children—has a vote. It is therefore not just the children who are not seen and not heard but the undocumented migrants as well who have no voice.
That may be one reason why the Liberal Democrats are not the most popular party. We believe in the dignity and well-being of individuals, no matter who they are or where they come from. That is why we believe that asylum seekers should be able to work if the Home Office has been unable to resolve their case within six months, so that they can support themselves and their family without having to rely on the state, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and my noble friend Lord Roberts said. But during that six months, or for however long the Government decide to deprive them of their ability to support themselves, they and their children must, at the very least, be given a home, enough to eat and enough to live a decent life. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, at the moment the system is trapping many in destitution.
Noble Lords will be familiar with the saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin:
“That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer”.
Surely it is better that 100 applicants should exploit the system than that one innocent child should suffer.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those already expressed to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for securing this debate and, in so doing, drawing attention to the Project 17 report of February this year on children’s experiences of the hostile environment. I will confine my comments to the issue of the migrant children on whom the report concentrates, although I agree with the wider but highly relevant points made by other noble Lords in this debate, not least those made by my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie. The title of the debate seeks the Government’s assessment of the report; no doubt that will come when the Government respond.
Project 17 works with migrant children whose families have no recourse to public funds, due to their parents’ immigration status. This means that their families are unable to claim the main welfare benefits or access social housing. Instead, due to their extremely adverse financial position—otherwise known as destitution—they have to seek further support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Some families affected have a legal right to remain in the UK but nevertheless have a condition attached to their leave to remain, preventing them accessing public funds. Some families are seeking to establish and regularise their immigration status in the hostile immigration environment to which the title of the Project 17 report refers.
Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children “in need” in their area. The Project 17 report indicates that just under 6,000 children from families with no recourse to public funds across England and Wales received Section 17 support—I think that was in 2012-13. The report goes on to say that children in such families grow up in exceptional poverty and are at risk of homelessness, exploitation and abuse. Continuing, the report states:
“The government’s commitment to creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants trumps its commitment to children’s rights, rendering the children in destitute migrant families ‘second class citizens’”.
With the arrival in office of the current Home Secretary, the Government sought to rebrand the openly declared and increasingly hostile environment policy of his two predecessors in that office. This report, however, indicates that rebranding a policy by giving it another name—a name which I imagine few apart from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, can now remember—alters nothing when attitudes and culture on immigration issues appear to have remained as they were under the two previous Home Secretaries.
Responsibility for supporting children living in families with no recourse to public funds rests with local authorities, which themselves have been subjected over the last 10 years to savage reductions in funding from central government. The result has been inevitable: local authorities have sought by one means or another, as they have in many other spheres of activity, to cut back on support for the children who we are discussing to match expenditure to their heavily and deliberately reduced income. The report states that the financial support provided to families under Section 17 is often well below asylum support rates under the Immigration and Asylum Act, which is the minimum that the Home Office views as required to avoid a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, and which case law suggests is the minimum a local authority is required to pay under Section 17. As a result, the report says that many families are unable to afford basic necessities such as enough food, clothing—including for school uniforms—and transport.
However, the impact goes further since the report points out that there can be an emotional impact on children in this position as they are left feeling socially isolated, distressed, ashamed and unsafe. This includes children who in a great many cases were born in this country and have spent their lives here; children who in a great many cases are British citizens; and children who are likely to become British before they reach adulthood. I certainly do not suggest that this has been a deliberate objective, but other government policies have also had an adverse impact on children and their future prospects in life. Two examples are the attack on the number, and level of service, of Sure Start centres by reducing the funding available to local authorities under the prolonged and still-continuing austerity programme of choice, not necessity, and the increased criminalisation of children as a result of the government-induced funding shortfall in children’s social care and the prolonged austerity programme of choice, which has led to a reduction of some 20,000 in the number of police officers.
The Government’s standard answer about services dependent on local authority funding is that it is up to local authorities to determine their priorities and that if they do not provide sufficient funds to adequately source a demand, that is entirely their responsibility and nothing whatever to do with central government. We will wait to see whether that is once again to be part of the Government’s response to this debate tonight. If it is, that is a thoroughly unprincipled response when coming from a Government who, over the last 10 years, have cut back heavily on the financial resources available to local authorities without comparably reducing their responsibilities. Indeed, on some matters local authorities have been given expanded or additional responsibilities. Local authorities are now in a situation where the funding they have been left with is just plain insufficient to enable them to deliver properly on all the priorities that they are still either required or expected to deliver, including the priority of the children who are the subject of the Project 17 report.
The report makes a number of recommendations directed at local authorities, which relate to how assessments should be made and determined; the level of financial support; the provision of information about how it is calculated; and the suitability and location of accommodation. The more telling recommendations, however, are directed at central government. These include: that local authorities should be sufficiently funded by central government to meet their duties under Section 17; that the Home Office should not apply the “no recourse to public funds” condition to individuals granted leave to remain on human rights grounds; that the Government’s 30-hours free childcare scheme should be made available to families with no recourse to public funds; and that legal aid should be reinstated for individuals applying for leave to remain on the basis of family or private life.
A number of challenges and questions have been raised with the Government in this debate on the impact of their policies on the issue we are discussing, which the Project 17 report highlighted. It is now for the Government to give their response to these challenges and questions, not least those raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. That government response could of course demolish, or largely demolish, much of the case made in the report, depending on the strength of the case that the Government present as their assessment of it. But if the government response does not do that, we need to ask ourselves whether what government policy has apparently done, according to the Project 17 report, and is doing to the children in question does or does not reflect the true British value of decency and the British sense of justice and fair play.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for securing this important debate. All children should have access to the support that they need to keep them safe and well, regardless of their immigration status. The Project 17 report, which is the subject of this debate, concentrates on local authority support provided for families with “no recourse to public funds” under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. In particular, it focuses on those families who are destitute because they cannot claim benefits, or access social housing, due to their immigration status. These families turn to local authorities for support under Section 17. It might be helpful if I set out the main points of the Government’s position, as approved by Parliament, when it comes to no recourse to public funds, and then move on to address the recommendations in the Project 17 report that are for central government. I cannot do the latter without including local authorities, which are faced with the challenge of making these assessments and providing support of the right kind when it is required. Quite often local authorities are supporting children at a time when things in their parents’ lives are not as they should be, including the parents’ immigration status. It is therefore important to recognise the priority placed by local authorities on the performance of their duties under the Children Act. These and other measures are vital in ensuring that children have their needs met, regardless of their parents’ status. I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, about the LGA’s next campaign.
The Government’s position on no recourse to public funds is simply that those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burdens on the taxpayer and promotes integration. I stress that this position has been approved by Parliament in primary legislation, most recently in the Immigration Act 2014. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and other noble Lords, might like to note the date. To address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, successive Governments have adopted the general position that persons subject to immigration control should not be entitled to access public funds until they have obtained indefinite leave to remain, reflecting the strength of their connection to the UK. There are, of course, exceptions for certain groups, such as refugees granted temporary leave to remain for a period before they qualify for settlement.
On that basis, no recourse to public funds is a standard condition applied to those staying here with a temporary immigration status. It protects our public funds, which need to be allocated in a fair and rational way, and which are never quite as limitless as people might wish. To balance this, and to provide for exceptions, we have laws which allow for needs to be met, particularly among children and the vulnerable. These too, and the resources involved, need to be applied in a fair, consistent and rational way. For those with a right to remain here established on a human rights basis, no recourse to public funds is a standard condition. It can be lifted, but only on the basis of a personal application. These requests receive careful consideration in the light of the applicant’s circumstances and the welfare of any children involved. This is not the case for those who have been refused leave to remain in the UK and whose appeals have been turned down by the courts. Those individuals are expected to leave the UK and are not eligible for support from public funds. This is an obvious and essential requirement of immigration control.
However, there are sometimes barriers to individuals leaving the UK; for instance, the difficulty of obtaining documentation from their own national authorities. Parliament has accepted that, as a result, they may qualify for local authority support, where this is necessary to avoid breaches of human rights obligations, and where children are involved. This is the main group brought to our attention by the Project 17 report. The Government’s view is that the right legal framework exists for providing them with support. This reflects that for those with no right to be here the support is available if it is necessary to avoid a breach of their human rights. Underpinning this, support can also be provided under Section 17 of the Children Act when the specific needs of the children of the family call for such supportive intervention. Therefore, families with no recourse to public funds due to the lawful operation of immigration control can still be supported by local authorities when their individual circumstances and the needs of their children require this. Decisions on providing this support are made locally, by the individual local authority concerned.
Therefore, while the Government maintain their position on lawful residence, and that family migration should not create burdens on the taxpayer, various provisions work together so that support can be provided to families in genuine need. Essentially, this can happen in one of three ways. First, asylum-seeking families with children can receive support under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 if they cannot provide for their own needs. Secondly, individuals and families with children may also be granted access to public funds by the Home Office, following a request for this, where there are compelling circumstances relating to destitution, the welfare of a child or exceptional financial circumstances. Thirdly and finally, local authorities can also provide basic safety-net support to families with children, using their own powers.
The Government recognise that local authorities are delivering in a challenging environment and have had to make difficult choices as they work to meet the needs of the most vulnerable while balancing the books. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred compellingly to this. A further £410 million has been allocated in 2019-20 for local authorities to invest in adult and children’s social care services. This is on top of the forecast core spending power of £46.4 billion available to local authorities this year. Free school meals are available to disadvantaged families in receipt of certain benefits. Eligibility can include those granted refugee status and children of immigrants and refugees who are receiving support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The Home Office is also able to exercise discretion to grant recourse to public funds where the family would otherwise be destitute, and this can lead to the child becoming eligible for free school meals, depending on the benefits involved.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about childcare, because the Project 17 report recommended that 30 hours of free childcare should be made available to families with no recourse to public funds. That scheme is intended to help parents undertake paid work or work more hours if they wish and to support working parents with the costs of childcare. A range of free early education entitlements are available to support young children’s learning and development. All three and four year-olds, regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status, are entitled to 15 hours a week of free early education for 38 weeks of the year until they reach compulsory school age. Free early education is also available to some disadvantaged two year-olds, including looked-after and adopted children, those with an education, health and care plan, and children from families who are receiving support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. I noted with interest the point made by my noble friend Lord Moynihan about mental health and education and the Green Paper on children’s mental health. I agree with him on the importance of maintaining good mental health through education. If I can, I will write to him on the Green Paper.
I also note, and support, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, about the importance of the English language for integration; it is vital. As he said, it is also vital for seeking work and contributing to the economy. Most noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Roberts, Lord Paddick and Lord Watson, talked about asylum seekers not being able to work. Asylum seekers are supported by the Home Office while their applications are being resolved. Although it is right that they should not access the labour market during this time, they are not being required to live without adequate support. The support has been approved by the courts. They are able to work after 12 months if their application is not resolved, and most are resolved within that time. Successful asylum seekers are of course entitled to work. Those who are not successful are not entitled to work, but support is not withdrawn if they have children.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked what data is currently collected on the number of children affected by this. Local authorities keep data on the number of migrant families they support, and this includes the number of children. The data can be obtained from the NRPF Connect database owned by the local authority. The impact is mitigated by a combination of measures: principally, it can be lifted because of the needs of children following an application from their parents. This is rational and fair. He also asked me whether, if people are legally here, we should support them. Successive Governments have maintained that access to public funds should be at the point of permanent residence.
I must respond on the phrase “hostile environment”. I have said before that it was coined under Alan Johnson and the term was stopped under my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is absolutely right that the very term goes to the culture of the department in question, and I hope that under my right honourable friend, myself and other Ministers—
I am not going to allow the noble Lord to intervene, because I have six seconds left, but he talked about the plight of children around the world and I want to make one point before I finish. In terms of Europe, through the national resettlement schemes we have resettled more people than any EU state: 9,500 UASCs have been resettled since 2016 and 36,500 children have been granted our protection since 2010. To make the analogy with Yad Vashem is absolutely—I cannot see how that analogy can be placed at the feet of this Government. This Government and this country have provided a very welcoming environment for people who have needed our protection over the years.
I think I have addressed the point made by my noble friend Lord Moynihan, so I thank all noble Lords for taking part in this debate.