My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to propose the Second Reading of this important and, I think, timely Bill. I am very grateful to all the speakers in today’s debate, to the Families Together coalition of NGOs, which has supported, encouraged and briefed us, to our Library for its briefing, and to all the parliamentarians who have championed this cause in previous versions of this Bill, not least my noble friend Lady Hamwee.
The Bill is timely because recent events make it more vital than ever. Broadcasts from Afghanistan have highlighted the pertinence of family in the case of refugees. We have seen babies passed over barbed wire to soldiers and small children left behind in the chaos outside Kabul airport, and heard the many anguished accounts of those who could not locate their families in time to gather them together for an evacuation flight.
The purpose of the Bill is to expand the criteria of who qualifies as a family member for the purposes of refugee family reunion; to reintroduce legal aid for such cases; and to give unaccompanied refugee children in the UK the right to sponsor their family members to join them under the refugee family reunion rules. On that last point, the application in almost every other European country of the EU family reunification directive means that they allow refugee children to sponsor close relations.
In his report a year ago on the handling of family reunion cases, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration said that
“the Private Members’ Bill having fallen, the Home Office now needs to demonstrate that it has indeed listened to stakeholders regarding: expanding the eligibility criteria for sponsors and applicants; enabling access to legal aid”
“fixing issues with the application process itself ... And, where it looks to resist demands for these changes, it needs to show that it has a robust evidence base for its current policy and practice.”
I hope to hear that from the Minister if he is indeed to resist the Bill.
I was impressed by Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins MP, speaking last week about the importance of giving stability to the recipients of the ARAP scheme through indefinite leave to remain and the right to work. That word “stability” is of the utmost relevance and importance in the context of family reunion. Permitting a refugee to be with their family will greatly improve their chance of leading a stable, well-integrated life without threats to their well-being and mental health. Family unity may also save the public purse. It costs £30,000 a year to look after a child in a residential home or foster care.
However, the family reunion provisions of the Immigration Rules are narrow. They allow only a spouse or partner and children under the age of 18 to be reunited with a family member granted refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK. Under the Dublin process, if a family member was in another European country, they had a prospect of being reunited, but of course this no longer applies in the UK, so the prospects of family reunion have become even more constrained.
Apart from being narrow, the Home Affairs Select Committee in the other place has said that these rules pose “unacceptable bureaucratic hurdles”, with forms that are complex, especially without specialist legal advice, an appeals process that is unclear, costly and lengthy, meaning that a child may have to wait in unsafe conditions while the application is processed. They are likely to be particularly difficult for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to navigate, and may drive children to attempt to come to the UK to reunite with relatives via possibly unsafe and irregular routes.
I imagine that the Minister will again seek to deflect the case for this Bill by directing my attention, first, to another provision of the Immigration Rules and, secondly, to the discretion outside the rules. In its response to the report in October 2020 of the then Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, which cited calls from stakeholders to expand the eligibility criteria for applicants, the Home Office indeed stated that there were “other provisions” in the Immigration Rules which catered for extended family members.
However, Rule 319X of the Immigration Rules, which allows a separated child to join a relative who has refugee status but is not their parent—for example, an older sibling, aunt, uncle or grandparent—is less accessible than under the Dublin system. It incorporates tests which provide a stiff hurdle of “serious and compelling”, an application fee of nearly £400 and demanding requirements for maintenance and accommodation, meaning no welfare support, no recourse to public funds and limited rather than indefinite leave. As far as I know, the Home Office has not provided any data on the number of applications made under Rule 319X and the outcomes of those cases; perhaps the Minister can do so today.
The Home Office also traditionally maintains that the 2016 guidance on cases outside the Immigration Rules allows sufficient scope, which makes a Bill such as this unnecessary. It is true that this guidance allows family reunion to be granted in exceptional cases, such as for dependent children aged over 18, but in reality that rarely happens. The applicant must meet a test of it being “unjustifiably harsh” to refuse, so a justifiably harsh consequence is permissible, which I find a little bizarre. Also, discretion outside the rules does not give the same certainty as a change in the rules. Family members may themselves be in an unsafe situation or escaping danger, and with family reunion restricted, some will resort to finding dangerous alternatives. This is the opposite of what the Government say that they seek to achieve.
The nationality and asylum Bill will radically restrict rights, including family reunion rights, for those who arrive irregularly, but this would undermine any attempt to close down irregular routes, since if someone cannot reach family through the reunion rules, they are likely to attempt an irregular route. If the Government are serious about strengthening safe routes and supporting women and children, they will back this Bill.
The New Plan for Immigration, published in March, prior to the Bill, contained a suggestion to raise to 21 the age of children eligible for reunion. Sadly, that suggestion was withdrawn in the response to consultation, although no explanation was given. Perhaps the Minister can provide one. [Interruption.] I apologise; I thought I had silenced my mobile phone.
I thank the noble Lord; I certainly have lost some brownie points.
I was noting that the New Plan for Immigration contained a suggestion to raise to 21 the age of children eligible for reunion, which was withdrawn in the response to consultation. I hope that the Minister can provide an explanation for that. As a refugee called Ngozi told the Joint Committee on Human Rights on Wednesday:
“We remain children to our parents even when we are over 18.”
The Conservative MP and former Home Office Minister, Caroline Nokes, said in the debate on Afghanistan in the other place on 18 August:
“Our children do not suddenly become independent because they pass a day over their 18th birthday, so refugee family reunion in this instance has to ensure that those girls are able to come here. Would we leave our daughters in Afghanistan?” —[Official Report, Commons, 18/8/21; col. 1322.]
To answer her question, I think none of us would regard it as remotely reasonable to make a family contemplate leaving a 19 or even 25 year-old daughter in Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban, or indeed in a refugee camp or unsafe situation anywhere. Imagine being the parents of a family having to make the cruel choice either to depart the country while leaving an over-18 child, considered adult but still vulnerable, or to stay in a dangerous situation in order for them all to remain together. It is entirely possible—indeed, it happens—for there to be delays in deciding an asylum case such that a child who was well under 18 when the asylum application was made turns 18 while waiting for a decision. We know that some decisions can take many years.
The Home Affairs Select Committee called it “perverse” to deny refugee children the right to bring close family to join them in the same way as adults. The traditional Home Office objection is that a child may be sent ahead as a peg or anchor, to justify a whole family being able to secure refugee status. In response to the 2020 report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration that I cited, it said:
“The government has made clear in the past its concern that allowing children to sponsor parents would risk creating incentives for more children to be encouraged, or even forced, to leave their family and attempt hazardous journeys to the UK.”
As well as the chief inspector saying that there was no such evidence, the former EU Committee of this House, in its 2016 report on unaccompanied minors, said the same:
“We found no evidence to support the Government’s argument that the prospect of family reunification could encourage families to send children into Europe unaccompanied in order to act as an ‘anchor’ for other family members. If this were so, we would expect to see evidence of this happening in Member States that participate in the Family Reunification Directive. Instead, the evidence shows that some children are reluctant to seek family reunification, for fear that it may place family members in danger.”
I think we can appreciate that there are all kinds of reasons to send a 16 or 17 year-old away from danger, without having to speculate wildly about ulterior motives. Allowing refugee children to sponsor immediate family would, in fact, reduce the number taking irregular journeys.
The Bill also reintroduces provision for legal aid, which was withdrawn in 2012 on the basis that applications for family reunion were, according to the Ministry of Justice, “straightforward”. This is often not the case, as they can be complex and time consuming, particularly when DNA tests or adoption cases are involved. There was an order in 2019 making provision for legal aid in the case of separated migrant children, either under the Immigration Rules or outside the rules, on the basis of exceptional circumstances or compassionate and compelling factors, but I do not know how many cases have benefited from this. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us.
The advantages of restoring legal aid would accrue not only to the applicant but to the Government, since helping the system to function better would save money. The inspector of borders found many errors needing to be overturned on appeal or refusals resulting in further applications. The cost of reintroducing legal aid would be modest. It was estimated by the Government a decade ago at £5 million. I have not seen any more recent estimate, but I do not imagine it will have gone up by more than inflation. Let us say that it is below £10 million, and it will save money all through the system.
To conclude, the case for a more generous approach to family reunion for refugees is based on both humanitarian grounds—which, I contend, are very strong—and the hard-headed case that reunited families allow refugees to find their feet more quickly, integrate better and contribute more fully, to the benefit of themselves, their community, the country and the Treasury. I therefore hope that the Minister can give me a positive response today. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for having given us a chance to debate this Bill. I am also grateful to Safe Passage for the help it has given us—or certainly me—with briefings on the legislation.
I suppose the Bill is in some ways almost a precursor to the Nationality and Borders Bill that will come to this House, but that does not in any way weaken my support for it, because it makes the case for an important matter of principle. I refer first to the argument that Ministers keep using, that asylum seekers should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. I have discussed this with UNHCR and, as I understand it, that is not UNHCR’s position. Secondly, it is not logical. Had it been the case in 2016-17, 1 million Syrians would not have gone to Germany but would have remained in Greece, Italy or Malta. It does not even make sense in practical terms, and it could have a very damaging effect on the rights of child refugees in particular.
I am reminded of an example a year or two ago of a young Syrian in the north of England whose younger brother who had managed to get to Greece. The question was whether the younger brother could come and join him here; the older brother had accommodation and everything ready for him. It took quite a lot of argument to achieve that but, under the Government’s present proposals, it would not even have been possible. The Government ought to explain by what argument they differ from the views of UNHCR as well as of humanity and logic.
It is very clear—and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said so emphatically—that it is important to give children the right to be with their families. Surely, the right to be with family is absolutely fundamental to human existence, and anything we do to prevent that must be adverse to the interests of children and the family; indeed, it makes no sense in respect of the country that we are.
We had a long argument about the Dublin III regulations. Although this House and the Commons initially passed an amendment in 2017 to say that we should go on negotiating to continue the terms of Dublin III—the right to family reunion—beyond our leaving the EU, the Government then rescinded that in the 2019 legislation. We were told that it would be okay because we had the Immigration Rules, that it would be fine and I should not get too worried. The fact is that the Immigration Rules are weak in this respect. They are a blunt instrument; they are hard to enforce, and they need far more discretion from the Home Office than has been the case hitherto.
We know, for example—and I have discussed it with them—that many of the young Afghan boys who fled Afghanistan before the Taliban took over completely fled because the Taliban wanted to make them join the Taliban and fight in the Taliban forces. That is why families tried to help get their young family members out even before the Taliban took over. The position now, of course, is more serious for women and girls in Afghanistan, but that was often the argument as to why the children left. Now that we have this difficult situation, we should surely consider sympathetically and properly under the legislation whether, when some of these young Afghan boys are already here, the remainder of their family should come and join them.
We have said on countless occasions that, if there are safe and legal routes, people do not use traffickers. It is utterly regrettable that through the closing down of safe and legal routes, particularly from northern France and Calais, the traffickers have a field day. This will never achieve the ostensible aims of the Home Secretary that we will somehow cut down on numbers. The Bill is an important step in the right direction. I hope that the Government will be a bit more sympathetic today than they have been in the past.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on the Bill. I am grateful for the helpful briefing from the Refugee Council. We all watched shocking reports from Afghanistan. We saw people fleeing for their lives, terrified, confused and hungry, leaving everything behind to try to save their families. Sometimes they even left disabled family members behind. I tried to imagine what I would do in their situation, how I would protect my family, especially as a woman. The thought of being in that situation is frightening, especially because I am the mother of disabled adults with additional support needs. It has made me reflect deeply on the invisible and ignored challenges some Afghans will be enduring. What about those Afghans who are carers of disabled adult relatives, some of whom may have been left behind, relatives with learning disabilities, autistic relatives, relatives who will be struggling to understand why their world has been turned upside down and why they are running away from their homes leaving behind everything that made them feel safe and calm?
The media rarely focus on the struggles of disabled people in humanitarian crises. Millions of people become refugees every year, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that one in seven of them is a disabled child or adult. Most refugees will have no words to describe the trauma they have been through in their own language, let alone in the language of the strange new country in which they find themselves. That situation is made worse if they have arrived in a country by a means other than official routes, resulting in them being detained for lengthy periods.
Seeking refuge in a refugee camp is tough for anyone, but for an autistic child or adult or somebody with learning difficulties the situation is amplified beyond comprehension. This is a huge challenge for organisations working with them, including for interpreters who often have very little experience of working with disabled refugees who also need to be reunited with their families. I declare an interest because Beyond Words, the charity that I founded and now chair, has published a free wordless story to help refugees, refugee organisations and others cross that language divide. Wordless stories can be particularly helpful for many people in refugee communities because they are not language dependent. This resource was in development and being tested with refugees from other countries in the UK and in refugee camps abroad, and their children, before the current Afghanistan exodus. The feedback has been that it helps them feel understood and validates their trauma. They have told us that the pictures are powerful and give an accurate representation of some of their experiences. Beyond Words hopes that this short story will help children and young people in schools offer a genuine welcome to refugee children and to understand something about the traumatic journeys some may have had to face in the days and weeks before they arrived in their school.
Children over the age of 18 can be included in a settlement application if they were granted the status of being an applicant’s dependant when the applicant received their original grant of asylum but, noting that disabled dependants of all ages are the most likely family members to be left behind, can the Minister explain what mechanism might be available for disabled adult family members to be reunited with their families, who are typically their main carers?
My Lords, I wholeheartedly support my noble friend on this Bill, which I do not think will come as any surprise. In 2017, when my similar Bill was agreed by the House, I began by acknowledging the UK’s resettlement programmes and its financial contributions. Since then, we have had cuts to the aid budget and a new asylum policy, but the wider context is not that dissimilar. Of course, we can never do enough. We cannot host everyone, but we can do better.
The qualitative point today is about families. On extending eligibility to sponsor family members to those who are far closer than “extended family” suggests, the Bill is really quite narrow. To be without everything that has been a part of your life is desperate, especially if you are young and still developing. Settlement in a new country is extremely important to a refugee’s well-being and to how the whole community functions. That is much more easily achieved if you are with your family; that may be a parent, a sibling or your mother’s sister. Our rules, as my noble friend has said, are very restrictive, with discretion rarely applied, and people should not have to look to discretion.
Given the tone of the Home Office report that was published in July on legal routes and family reunion, I am apprehensive about the “additional clarity” that we are promised. The report includes a summary of responses to the Home Office’s consultation. We are told that the participants in the public focus group organised by the Home Office
“agreed that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children should be reunited with their family member(s) in the UK, where possible.”
We are told:
“In the deep dive, stakeholders advocated for … removing financial requirements for sponsors, and lowering the evidence threshold, including on demonstrating family links.”
However, the Government’s response is that there could be “unintended consequences” through those changes. The response says:
“Overall, we consider the case has not been made for the government to adopt a different approach in relation to fees, financial requirements and the need to meet relevant evidence thresholds for children, including UASC seeking to join nonparent refugee relatives in the UK.”
It says, “We consider this”—that is, the proposed changes—
“has the potential to attract a very high number of applications”.
What do the Government consider to be a very high number? I really hope the Minister can answer that question, because I understand that the Home Office is unable to provide data on the number of applications under paragraph 319X, nor on the outcome of those applications. Do the Government recognise that all NGOs in the sector are clear that family reunion must be in the best interests of the child?
A friend recently published a history of her family. Her not-quite-teenage grandmother, as she calls her, of well over a century ago, features in it. My friend wrote:
“I try to imagine what it must have been like to leave the only place you had ever known and to travel across the sea to a foreign country where you didn’t speak a word of the language. Lea, not much more than a child, had to trek 1,500 kilometres to Hamburg, the German port, where ships were harboured waiting to convey thousands of hopeful immigrants to England. Hamburg was enjoying an economic boom created by the invasion of these transient and mostly unworldly Jews, many of whom were ripe for exploitation.”
These are the people who make Britain what it is today.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for drafting such a timely Bill. In my experience, the cause of human rights has many occasional, selective and even fickle friends. She is not of their number, and it is completely characteristic that she should use this precious opportunity for a Private Member’s Bill in defence of some of the most vulnerable and dehumanised people in our communities and our world. Obviously, it is a shame that her wholly sensible, practical and humane measure is even necessary, but I am afraid it is becoming more essential by the day.
Like the current Home Secretary, I am the daughter of migrants to this country. However, it seems that this shared experience appears to have instilled rather contrasting approaches to refugees on our respective parts. In the summer of 1940 little boats in the English Channel came to symbolise the Dunkirk rescue and Britain’s defiance of Hitler. Now it seems that little boats of desperate people are to be repelled or even sunk, in clear contravention of the refugee convention and even clearer contravention of common decency.
Ministerial answers to this charge plead that they are merely seeking to deter the evil trade in people smuggling or words to that effect: that the answer to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II is not such dangerous and mercenary human traffic, but safe routes to our shores. Does not the noble Baroness’s Bill call that bluff? Her short and simple measure not only provides safe routes but plugs an obscene and discriminatory gap in protection that denies refugee children the right to bring parents and siblings to join them in safety, and she offers those seeking family reunion legal aid. I really look forward to hearing a single valid argument against that legal aid provision.
I am sorry not to find the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in her place today. That is not to begrudge her a break or to question the ability of the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, to turn his hand to her brief. It is just that earlier in the week, in response to a question, she seemed to suggest that the UK had always given compassionate haven to the desperate. I am afraid that I beg to differ. I do not think that our patriotism should lead us to airbrush important history and fail to learn its lessons. In the autumn of 1938 and even after Kristallnacht, the Home Office—my former employer—was regularly denying refuge to German Jewish people seeking to flee Hitler. No less than Albert Einstein had already been denied asylum here, having to go on to find it in the United States. Sylvia Pankhurst pleaded with the Home Office via the Manchester Guardian:
“May we not plead for somewhat more humanity in dealing with these cases?”
I suspect that the Minister might not find the red suffragettes so compelling, so I will try these words instead:
“I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam, I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua.”
Today we could add a desperate person in a dinghy in the English Channel. That, of course, was Ronald Reagan. I hope the Home Secretary might find some similar compassion.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Ludford for presenting her Bill on family reunion for refugees and for her excellent introduction to it. I also thank Families Together and Safe Passage for their helpful briefings. It is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, whose advocacy for truly desperate people was so well evidenced in her speech.
In the late 1970s, I knew and was part of a team trying to help a woman doctor who had fled Chile after her husband, also a doctor, had disappeared and was killed by the Pinochet regime. There was no question at that time that her child might be able to escape with her, and I heard and saw the distress this caused her, especially because she knew that her child and her parents were also at risk because of the Pinochet regime’s vindictive nature. Eventually she was able to get her child to the UK because the then Government understood their responsibilities for the right for children to be with their families, and for their own safety.
Her experience mirrors the position that many refugees in the 21st century still face, but what has changed is the current Government’s approach to asylum and refugees, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee outlined. My husband chairs the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Partnership. He knows of an Afghan refugee with leave to remain who has been in the UK for some time but whose now teenage children could not leave the country when he did. The grandparent who cared for them has died and the father is desperate for his children to be able to join him as they will be at particular risk from the Taliban. I agree with Caroline Nokes MP when she said:
“Our children do not suddenly become independent because they pass a day over their 18th birthday”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/8/21; col. 1322.]
Nor does that birthday make them instantly safe in the country that their parent has had to flee for their life.
Recently the world’s focus has been on Afghanistan but, as other speakers have said, this is a widespread problem where tyrants rule with impunity. For hundreds of years, the UK has had a proud history of accepting refugees in fear of their lives, including the Huguenots, whose small children were thrown from windows of buildings in France; those from Hitler and Pinochet’s appalling regimes in the 20th century; and more recently those from Eritrea and Syria.
It is also vital that parents should be able to join their unaccompanied children who have been accepted as refugees. The UK’s argument that this would encourage more children to travel has been contested by experts in this area. UNHCR, the Refugee Council, Amnesty International and Save the Children all have evidence of how not reuniting unaccompanied children causes anxiety, constant fear and, not surprisingly, mental health problems that will last their lifetimes. I absolutely support the provision of legal aid being available for family reunion, not least because the exceptional case funding rates are inappropriately low for these cases.
Finally, this Bill is tackling one of the inequities proposed in the Nationality and Borders Bill. How someone fleeing for their lives, making for a safe country where they have contacts, should be judged on their eligibility as a refugee only on the route they have taken is outrageous. It contravenes international protection rules and is a severe backwards step for family reunion rights.
I will try to end on a positive note. Despite the proposals of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the way the Government have recently accepted those fleeing Afghanistan for their safety because of their links with the UK has meant that some families have arrived and others hope to join. In doing that, the Government have shown that they understand their moral duty to asylum seekers and family reunion. Accepting this Bill would be a major step in acknowledging that refugees seeking asylum from across the world have a right to be with their immediate families, and I hope that the Government will support it.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for bringing this to our attention. Even though there is major legislation on the way, these things cannot be handled too frequently and with greater urgency.
It is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and displaced persons. It was endorsed fulsomely by the Labour Government at the time and their successor Conservative Government. A conference of plenipotentiaries took place shortly after the passing of that convention, which remarked
“that the unity of the refugee’s family is maintained … extending the rights granted to the refugee to cover all the members of his family; and … providing special protection for … minors, in particular unaccompanied children … with special reference to guardianship and adoption.”
Again, the United Kingdom subsequently expressed
“the hope that this Convention will have value as an example exceeding its contractual scope and that all nations will be guided by it in granting so far as possible to persons present in their territory as refugees and who would not be covered by the terms of … Article 1 the treatment for which this Convention provides.”
As a further remark, it urged liberality and generosity on the part of those receiving fewer refugees and people fleeing persecution to help those on the front line to cover their costs and shoulder their burdens.
I mention all this from the beginning of a post-war era in the treatment of refugees because it speaks so loudly across the generations to our own day. A few days ago, I spent considerable time with officials of the UNHCR in Geneva. They are beside themselves with the legislation being pushed through or proposed in our Parliament, which is undermining almost every aspect of the guarantees and proposals of the Geneva convention. Refoulement or pushback is in the news lately. British lawyers having largely shaped the Geneva convention, who would have thought a British Government would indulge in such practices?
Two-tier entrance and non-discrimination is another central feature of the convention. Externalising responsibility and subcontracting some of the actions needed is, again, against not only the letter but the spirit of the convention. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, pointed out, on the whole thing about first country of entry, there was a 35-page document from UNHCR to rebut the legal claims about the interpretation of the word “direct”. It seems indisputable that the United Kingdom Government at this time are putting themselves at odds with the letter and spirit of the convention that has helped us to deal with the post-war realities facing us, the continent of Europe and the whole world, and we must regret it.
One last little thought, on a slightly different note: we have talked about how many people come in. From the last quarter of 2019 until a year later, 1.3 million European Union residents left this country, I suppose because of Brexit. The number of eastern Europeans fell by 12%, and Romanian and Bulgarian workers by 24%. So there is plenty of room for the 750 who come on Monday—plenty of room in all the places that need workers to provide their energies for our economy. So much of what we hear is simply spurious and unworthy, and it makes me feel afraid and ashamed of being a citizen of this country.
My Lords, I am pleased to support the Bill put forward by my noble friend Lady Ludford, and I commend her for her compelling introduction of it. As my noble friend said, and as other noble Lords have also said, this Bill is particularly timely, given the traumatic scenes that we have witnessed in Afghanistan. The injustices caused by the current approach are very clear; that has been the subject of previous Bills from my noble friend Lady Hamwee and of reports by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. It is time that we acted.
The particular case of unaccompanied children applying for family reunion, and the prohibition on that, is something that the Government have failed to address, and they have failed to provide any evidence for their assertion that to allow such sponsoring of family reunions would cause children to be pushed forward, as it were. However, it is not just about that issue; it goes further, as the 2020 report of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration made clear. There is a real lack of clarity from the Government in what becomes a complex application process. In his report, he asked the Government to clarify their position on a number of issues, particularly around
“child sponsors; dependent family members over 18 years of age; funding for DNA tests”
and “availability of legal aid”. He expressed his disappointment that, in their response to his report, which the Government had taken nine months to publish, on an issue that clearly needed a timely response, they had failed properly to address these issues. He said that their response
“simply reiterates its familiar lines and offers no supporting evidence to show that it has either monitored or evaluated the impact of its policies”.
This, he said—in what one might think is a slight understatement—
“is a pity, particularly in light of heightened concerns at present about the provision of safe and legal routes”.
That was in October 2020 and it is now even more significant.
He raised the issue of the fees charged at these visa application centres by the private companies that run them. He also raised the applications that are summarily refused on the basis that there is not enough evidence, even though the guidance says that some of this evidence is not mandatory.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, quoted the Manchester Guardian on having “somewhat more humanity” in our approach to Jewish refugees in the 1930s. I am struck by the Home Office response—or lack of response—to these issues, and by a phrase from the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, in which, as one of the three key elements, the report said that the Home Office
“must change its culture to recognise that migration and wider Home Office policy is about people and, whatever its objective, should be rooted in humanity.”
If the Home Office wants to show that it has learned that lesson, it could start by accepting this Bill.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Refugee Council, where the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, did so much good work for so long. Let me embarrass him by revealing to the House and putting on the record that the Refugee Council now meets in Alf Dubs House—greatly to his embarrassment, which I hope I have now doubled.
I warmly welcome this Bill. I am confident that the House will support it, as it supported a similar Bill three years ago which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, brought forward. We thought then the existing family reunion Bills were too narrowly drawn—harsher than those of most continental European countries—and they still are. They have not changed, and I am pretty sure that our views have not changed. I am therefore pretty confident about this Bill’s prospects in this House at least.
I now face a difficulty. All the arguments that I had intended to make have been made by the indefatigable noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Hamwee, and in particular in the moving speech we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, the saint of Burry Port. I therefore choose to cheat. I will use my time to ask the Minister five quick questions about Afghan refugees.
First, like the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, I was very pleased to hear Victoria Atkins announce that all the ARAP and ACRS arrivals would be given indefinite leave to remain. That is excellent, and we should congratulate the Home Secretary on that decision. However, I understand that the early arrivals under the ARAP scheme were given only temporary leave to remain; not all of them are aware of the difference that makes to their entitlements. I hope the anomaly will be corrected soon and that they will receive immigration advice on the significance of the correction.
Secondly, I was also delighted to learn that the DWP is deploying staff to the hotels where the refugees are held in quarantine, from which they will move as they bridge towards permanent accommodation. When will that deployment start? At present, these newly arrived people are deprived of any cash and the ASPEN cards they need to get cash. They are unable to purchase the sort of essentials they have not been given, such as medicines, toiletries, sanitary products, nappies and the sort of things that a family in temporary accommodation—locked up if they are in quarantine—badly need. The voluntary sector is trying to fill this gap at the moment; when the Government close the gap, which I am sure they will, our welcome will seem much the warmer.
Thirdly, when will details of the ACRS be published? I am sure a lot of local authorities will be willing to take part, but they do not know what they are going to be taking part in yet. They cannot come forward because no details have been provided yet about funding levels or the rules.
Fourthly, can I ask about the numbers under the ACRS? We are told that 20,000 will be accepted, but over what timescale? I have seen four years, five years and the worryingly vague “in the coming years”—those words were used in the other place. Over how long will it be? Where are the 15,000 supposed to hide in the interim? Are they hiding in Afghanistan? Are they in transit camps? Would their chances of integrating—of settling into the community here when they arrive—not be greater the sooner they get here? Could we not consider frontloading the 20,000? Why are we saying only 5,000 in the first year?
Lastly, what about the 3,200 Afghan asylum seekers already here in this country when mayhem broke out in theirs? It is now impractical—and, of course, it would be extraordinarily immoral—to send them back. Could we not consider that the most humane course would be to expedite their cases to reach decisions as soon as we can and leave them in their present limbo no longer? I support the Bill.
My Lords, I am also pleased to be able to support my noble friend Lady Ludford’s Bill. It is a short Bill but, in the words of a famous BBC radio programme, it is the antidote to the Government’s behaviour. In fact, the Bill itself will have huge consequences for the lives of our young people. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, for reminding us about the 1951 convention, because that is also an antidote to the direction that the Government have been taking. One sentence in Article 33 of that convention obliges a state to consider an asylum seeker’s status and not simply return them to their home or a third country. That will become increasingly relevant as we consider the Government’s legislation that will come before us, because that article and that convention has been the foundation of where our rules have come from.
This Bill is aimed at finding a solution to bring children and their families together. I hope it will be met with sympathy by this Government—though I am not holding my breath—but they have, in a sense, the ability to give this Bill time. I hope that that is where we will end up: that this House will have the time to fully consider this in further stages and to take it forward. At its heart, this Bill is looking at how to turn round and support the lives of children currently without any hope of reunion—without any hope is really where they are at present—with their parents and siblings. This is a matter which can and must be put right, for moral, social and economic reasons, some of which have already been explained to the House by earlier speakers. This Bill seeks to rectify an injustice which should be at the heart of a compassionate country.
I want to focus on one element of the Bill only, which my noble friend Lady Ludford mentioned in opening: the Government’s rationale. What is the Government’s rationale for not permitting children to become family reunion sponsors? At present, sponsors must be 18 years old or more. Those under 18 cannot sponsor relatives, even parents, under the current rules. That is strange—or perhaps not, given this Government’s position—because this policy is out of step completely with all our neighbouring countries in Europe, including those in the European Union.
The review of the reunion applications published last year by David Bolt, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, states:
“Stakeholders have asserted that the UK is in breach of its national and international legal obligations, including the family reunification provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child … Recent research by stakeholders highlighted the heightened vulnerability and significant trauma children suffered when separated from their families and left in the care of the State.”
Tellingly, the chief inspector goes on to say:
“Home Office policy staff told inspectors that most major decisions about family reunion policy were made by ministers and ‘sometimes decisions taken are inevitably political.’”
That is the nub of this: we are talking about a political, not a humanity-based, decision.
The Government’s position, echoed in their response to the report—by the way, their response to an 85-page report was a very slim volume of four and a half pages—states the position that my noble friend outlined in her opening: that child sponsorships would encourage or force families to send their children to the UK. However, when challenged, the Government have failed to come up with any evidence to support this political assertion, and the Home Office officials were unable to supply any supporting evidence. Of course, evidence to the contrary has been supplied by many external bodies, such as Save the Children, Amnesty International and the UNHCR. I hope that the Minister can provide the source of the evidence that supports the Government’s case. Otherwise, it is simply an assertion, as is borne out by the discovery of its own chief inspector.
The way forward is making the rules clearer and more straightforward, as the Bill does, and keeping to our international obligations. It would be a major step in the right direction, and I am pleased to support it. I hope that the Bill will seek to achieve all of its ambitions during the course of this House’s consideration of this matter.
I broadly support the Bill, including the provisions on legal aid, but I am wary of giving an unfettered right in all circumstances for applicants to bring in members of a family as broadly defined. In principle, of course, we should do all that we can to encourage family reunion: it is good for the individuals concerned, for society, for what our prayers at the start of the Sitting refer to as the “tranquillity of the realm” and for promoting stability, which the noble Baroness talked about in her opening. Of course, the topic is salient and likely to become even more so, given the pressures on this crowded island, from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and likely increased migration demands from Africa, the population of which is forecast to double, to 2.5 billion, by 2050.
Some of the problems arising from the Bill relate to the wide definition of “family”, which can be referred to in Committee. In many countries, “family” can be quite a fluid concept, and many countries have rather inadequate records, which could of course encourage fraud. I represented many applicants when I practiced at the Bar, and I was impressed, first, by the terrible conditions of insecurity from which so many were forced to flee. I was also impressed by the attractiveness of the UK for migrants, which means that many people, such as Afghans in the past, have travelled past Shia Iran, Sunni Turkey and even European transit countries, or via Indonesia to Australia.
I am also very much aware of the Bill’s provision that the applicant must have been granted refugee status or indefinite leave to remain. I am aware of not only, as I mentioned, the attractiveness of the UK but also, alas, the deviousness of traffickers, who prey on the human suffering and the individual’s natural aspirations to improve their and their family’s lot.
Do the Government or the Bill’s noble sponsor have any idea or estimate of the numbers likely to be involved, because numbers do matter? If we accept a relaxation of the rules, as I do, we cannot be naive and ignore the many obvious tactics likely to be used by traffickers who will seek to exploit every possible loophole in the Bill. For example, I have heard suggestions—I concede that this was in Albania—that traffickers obtain money from parents, promising to ensure that their children will reach the UK and the parents will be allowed thereafter to follow them, which is less possible now but likely to be very probable under the Bill.
The Bill gives the relevant child, at the age of 18, the unfettered right to bring the family here; the only barrier appears to be on grounds of national security. Would fraud, if detected, be deemed to be another barrier in certain circumstances? How substantial that is, I do not know, but there can be collusion and I would like to know how the Government view that. Is there much evidence of it happening? Is it a real problem? Can the Minister say a little more about how other countries faced with similar problems respond? How do they deal with fraud? Do they include some discretion, because there must ultimately be some discretion on the part of a Government in such cases? Even if, as I concede, there is a presumption of the right of family reunion, how have other countries addressed this problem? If we accept, as I do, the principle of family reunion, should we not also accept the case for measures to deal with potential abuse? My experience tells me that we have to be both principled in cases like this and worldly-wise.
My Lords, I support the Bill and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on introducing it. It is, as she said, incredibly timely, and I hope we will all work together later when other, much less attractive Bills come to this House.
Obviously, being the last Back-Bench speaker, I am going to have to cross out quite a lot of my speech, and I hope that some of the things I say will not go against any of our House of Lords procedures—which, of course, they might. I think this Bill is very sensible, and sensible is very high praise in my lexicon. It has a sense of family at its heart and of course Greens would automatically support this. Anyone with empathy and humanity will have sympathy with its aims, and the Bill is consistent with the Government’s stated intention of strengthening safe routes for those seeking protection in the UK. It is a shame that little else the Government do is consistent with the aim of reducing dangerous, irregular journeys.
This Government have grovelled before the worst elements of the British psyche—the racists, the bigots, the haters—and it really does the rest of us no credit. It brings shame on those of us who want to be decent human beings. This Government have behaved appallingly over the past 11 years but particularly on the issue of refugees. Our Government’s “hostile environment” can take most of the blame for the fact that we have left people behind in Afghanistan. I do not understand why we have an asylum regime that deliberately erects barriers and unnecessary bureaucracy every step of the way. Even before the fall of Kabul, the number of refugees who had been waiting more than a year had grown to more than 50,000. And what will now happen to the 3,200 people? As has been said, we cannot possibly send them back. Plus, of course, we have a lot of brave women protesting in Afghanistan, campaigning for their human rights very bravely, and they deserve every drop of respect, solidarity and support we can muster. If they have to flee Afghanistan, our doors really should be open, because we helped create a set of circumstances where women could express themselves and could find more freedom, and now they will suffer for it.
I do not understand why we have not had the time or resources to answer the multiple cries for help from people stranded behind the Taliban roadblocks. I think it is because we have put up our own roadblocks behind the desks in Whitehall; it seems that civil servants pick through details and create blocks that are not what the majority of British people would want.
When asked about supporting this Bill to reunite families, the Prime Minister replied that the Government would bring forward legislation to separate the legal from the illegal asylum seekers. No human is illegal. Seeking asylum is a human right. Do we really have criteria that exclude an interpreter or a cook who has worked for the British embassy for a decade, for example, merely because they were employed by a contractor rather than directly? Are they seen as some of the so-called illegals that our Prime Minister is talking about?
This Government are a disgrace. Their threats to break international law, whether it is maritime law or human rights legislation, are a disgrace to us all. I do not understand how they can do it without being utterly shamefaced. I am an atheist, but there is a phrase that applies to this: “There but for the grace of God go I”.
My Lords, I hesitate in a sense to spoil the noble Baroness’s assertion that she was the last speaker from the Back Benches. But as I have sat through the whole of this debate—the only one on these Benches to have done so—I thought it was not inappropriate to say a few words in the gap. I do so in a spirit of total sympathy with the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, although I have one or two reservations, as did my friend the noble Lord, Lord Anderson.
I am moved to speak because I derived my love of Shakespeare and English literature from a German-Jewish refugee, who happened to be our neighbour in the early 1950s and was an extramural lecturer at the University of Hull. He spent hours with me and really influenced me, socialist that he was. I am also proud of the fact that when I was first elected to the other place, I was among a small group of Conservative MPs who gave vociferous and wholehearted support to Edward Heath when he brought in the Ugandan Asians, who have done so much to enrich our society. It is against that background that I say a few words about the current situation.
Nobody could fail to have been moved and shamed by the scenes from Kabul airport; moved by the scenes of babies being thrown over barbed wire and shamed by the fact that we were so late on the act. I joined the group supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, when she argued for the rights of Afghan interpreters three or four years ago in this House. It is important that we acknowledge those to whom we have a real moral obligation and get them over here as quickly as possible.
When my noble friend winds up, I want him to say something about numbers and timings, just as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, said, because we need to know. Of course, there has to be some process of sifting those who are already here, who could harbour the odd terrorist in their number. We all have to acknowledge that, but the assumption should be that none of them are sent back and that they are all allowed to remain, just as the noble Lord said.
I am greatly reassured by the fact that a Minister for whom I have considerable admiration, Victoria Atkins, is looking after this issue—but we must act urgently and we need legislation. It is preposterous that people should get up in this House and quote paragraph 316X; we have to simplify the procedure. I happen to think that that can best be done by a government Bill, but that does not mean I do not have great sympathy with and admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, both for what she said and for the initiative she has taken.
This is the responsibility of the Government—a Government acting on behalf of us all—who must allow their prime emotions to be compassion, empathy and understanding. That way, our society will be enriched rather than impoverished.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Ludford for giving us the opportunity to debate this short but very important Bill. The torch for this issue has passed from my noble friend Lady Hamwee to my noble friend Lady Ludford. It has been debated many times over the years, and over that time has been refined into the form we see before us today. The need for this Bill is indisputable.
Can any of us imagine, as a child or young person, fleeing war or persecution, travelling thousands of miles from everything that is familiar and arriving in what you hope to be a safe and welcoming place of sanctuary, only to be told that being reunited with your mother, brothers and sisters is far from certain, let alone guaranteed? What possible argument could there be against such an automatic right to family reunion?
We have heard a lot of talk in this House about the need to control immigration, and I can understand that, but asylum seekers account for only 6% of immigration to the UK. The UK accepts only about a third of asylum claims, compared with the average across the European Union. If the UK were placed in a league table including all EU and EEA countries, it would rank only 19th by the number of asylum seekers given sanctuary as a proportion of population. By all means control immigration, but do not limit those welcomed into the UK by denying entry to the family members of desperate children who have fled war and persecution.
My noble friend Lady Ludford and other noble Lords highlighted the tragic scenes recently from Afghanistan that demonstrate how relevant the Bill remains. Allowing families to be together, including dependent children over the age of 18, is likely to be better for the welfare and mental health of all those concerned and to create less of a burden on the state.
There has been much talk from the Government Front Bench about the pull factor of a family sending a child or young person ahead, hoping that their family can subsequently join them. As my noble friend Lady Ludford said, there is no evidence that this is the case. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—I thank him for his support for the Bill and for his tireless efforts on these issues—made the important point that fleeing from conscription into the Taliban is a reason for young people to seek asylum, not becoming a peg or anchor for bringing a family member after them. As my noble friend also said, surely legal aid should be provided when a child is involved.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, made an important point about disabled refugees and my noble friend Lady Hamwee made the point that we cannot accommodate everyone, but surely family reunion must be a priority—morally, practically and economically. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, the Bill is practical, sensible and humane.
My noble friend Lady Brinton brought home the reality of what the Bill is about through her anecdotes, and my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, reminded us of the important place of family reunion when the 1951 UN refugee convention was established, and highlighted the appalling catalogue of measures the Government are proposing that undermine that convention.
My noble friend Lord Oates highlighted the lack of clarity over the rules for family reunion—clarity the Bill would provide. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, for his support and for his work with the Refugee Council, following on in the noble tradition of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. My noble friend Lord German said that the Bill is a much-needed antidote to what the Government are proposing. I am afraid we need a whole array of antidotes to what they are doing to seekers of sanctuary, although this is a very important one.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, agreed with the principles of family reunion and recognised the importance of it, but I remind the House again that asylum immigration amounts to only 6% of all UK immigration. If the Government want to control immigration, there are other, far more deserving areas than family reunion of asylum seekers where they can do so. It is always good to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, who reminded us again of the timeliness of the Bill in the light of the situation in Afghanistan, particularly for women.
It rather saddens me that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, interestingly pointed out that he was the only Back-Bencher from his party to sit through this debate, let alone participate.
Sometimes I wonder what is the point of participating in this House from these Benches. However, to be able to support a Bill such as this, and in particular to support my noble friends Lady Ludford and Lady Hamwee, makes my presence here worth while.
I too extend my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on her Bill and her powerful contribution in speaking to it. She reminded us that it is timely in the light of events in Afghanistan, which she and others have said have led to families being separated, including children.
The noble Baroness addressed a number of points and I certainly cannot refer to them all, but she made a comment about the provision that the Government usually refer to on exceptional cases. However, as we all know, by definition, that when you say “exceptional cases” they are few and far between and very limited, and certainly do not address the issue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and many others also referred to the argument, which will no doubt be trotted out again today, about unaccompanied child refugees being sent over to settle here purely to be able to sponsor family members to come and join them. There is no evidence to substantiate that argument and I wait to see whether it will be brought it out again today in the Government’s response. My noble friend Lord Dubs addressed the Government’s claim that you must claim asylum in the first safe country reached. Like him, I wonder whether that one will be mentioned again today, incorrect though it is.
I will refer to specific points made in other contributions. I think my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said that she would like to hear one convincing argument as to why one should object to the provisions in the Bill on legal aid for family reunion applications. If I understood her correctly, I can say only that I too will wait to hear one convincing argument as to why the provisions in the Bill on legal aid are unacceptable.
My noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port made a powerful speech that has been commented on by other noble Lords and which will not be quickly forgotten.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, let us know that the Refugee Council meets in Alf Dubs House—I take it that is not literally his house but the name of the building. As he said, it is a very fitting tribute to all the work that my noble friend has done over a great many years.
As we know, this Bill would change the present Immigration Rules to allow unaccompanied child refugees who settle here to sponsor family members to come and join them. It would allow a parent settled here to sponsor dependent children over the age of 18 up to the age of 25, and, as we have heard, it would amend existing provisions to allow legal aid for family reunion applications. The Bill is about the family, and particularly children, in the asylum and refugee system, and bringing families torn apart together again at a time of great stress, uncertainty, fear and difficulty. That stress, uncertainty, fear and difficulty have arisen from war, violence and persecution, the threat and reality of murder and rape, having to flee home and country to find safety and sanctuary elsewhere, and facing exploitation, trafficking and abuse on the way. In the process, the family gets split up at a time when family relationships and support are needed more than ever—and not least by children.
The current system, the rules and how they are applied, does not bring refugee families together again in far too many cases. Previously, the argument has been advanced that going down the road of this Bill would act as a pull factor, encouraging greater numbers to come, but the provisions of the Bill can be exercised only by those who have already met all the criteria for being refugees who have shown that they have fled persecution or conflict, and it is simply about the ability in those cases to reunite with their family.
The current arrangements, making family reunion difficult, if not impossible, in that situation, encourage trafficking, its dangers and exploitation—which surely we all want brought to an end. If there are no safe and legal routes to achieve family reunion, in many cases people will use illegal and dangerous routes out of a sense of desperation that there is no alternative.
When there is real hardship and hurt for families that have been torn apart and not reunited, they should not be made to suffer even more, so that their continuing separation will deter others, when there is no evidence that that will happen, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said. Other countries have similar provisions to this Bill in respect of children and family reunion, and it does not appear to act as a major pull factor for them. We know, too, that if we do not have effective legal family reunion settlement routes, that is when we get people falling into the hands of traffickers. But, above that, surely we should be working to keep families together, particularly at their time of greatest need and strain, as in the case of refugees, when the strength that family relationships bring is more vital and crucial than ever, particularly to children.
I hope that in their response, the Government will take a rather more positive stance towards the Bill, which we support, than they have when similar Bills and proposals have been discussed previously. This Government have given a commitment to accept potentially up to 3 million people from Hong Kong, should they decide they need to get out of Hong Kong and come to this country. So, particularly in the light of the situation in Afghanistan, it would seem odd if the Government now raised objections to this Bill, which addresses specific issues on family reunion, on the basis of any unsubstantiated argument that appears at heart to be related simply to numbers. Like all other noble Lords, I now await the Government’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for outlining her Bill on this very important and, as she and other noble Lords have noted, sadly timely issue, and all noble Lords who have taken part for their many thoughtful and passionate contributions to the debate. This is not a party-political issue, as the participation of my noble friend Lord Cormack makes clear, as does his recalling the record of Edward Heath’s Government in the protection that they afforded those expelled by Idi Amin in the 1970s. I am glad to listen to contributions from whatever corner of your Lordships’ House, as I am to hear quotations, whether from Ronald Reagan or the red suffragette, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, put it, although I am pleased to note that Sylvia Pankhurst’s sister and mother both joined the Conservative Party, a point that fills me with pride as I walk past the statue of the latter on my way to your Lordships’ House every day.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and others have indeed anticipated some of the points that I might make, and if I repeat them it is not out of disrespect to them and the arguments that they have advanced but because there are in this well-rehearsed area some instances where we differ in our conclusions and our assessments for very sincere reasons.
I have listened to the concerns raised about people separated from their family members by conflict or oppression. Nobody could fail to be moved by the thought of close family living in conflict zones or dangerous situations. That is why the Government strongly support the principle of family unity and why we already have a comprehensive framework for the family members of people who are granted asylum to be reunited here. It is set out in the Immigration Rules and our family reunion policy, rather than primary legislation.
The Government’s policy recognises that families can become fragmented because of the nature of conflict and persecution and the speed, manner and confusion in which people seeking asylum are often forced to flee their country of origin. Our policy is intended to allow those currently recognised as refugees or granted humanitarian protection in the UK to sponsor immediate family members to join them here. Immediate family members are defined in the Immigration Rules as a spouse or partner and children under the age of 18 who formed part of the family unit before their refugee sponsor fled their country of origin or former habitual residence to claim asylum in the UK. That policy has seen more than 30,000 people reunited with their refugee family members in the past five years.
There are also rules in place for the extended family of refugees in the UK to sponsor children where there are serious and compelling circumstances, and refugees can also sponsor adult dependent relatives living overseas to join them where, due to age, illness or—to follow the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins—disability, that person requires long-term personal care that can be provided only by relatives in the UK. In addition, our policy makes clear there is discretion to grant visas outside the Immigration Rules, which caters for extended family members in exceptional circumstances —for example, young adult sons or daughters who are dependent on family here and living in dangerous situations. Combined, therefore, our rules and existing policy offer a comprehensive but balanced package of opportunities to ensure that immediate families can be reunited while providing routes for broader reunification based on compelling or exceptional need.
There is no fee to make an application for refugee family reunion and the sponsor in the UK does not need to meet financial or maintenance requirements. This is important to ensure that their family can be reunited with them here in the UK, but it means that the policy must also be considered in terms of public resources. The noble Baroness’s Bill would allow potentially tens of thousands of extended family members to be entitled to come to the United Kingdom, many of whom might not have protection needs in their own right, with challenging implications for our local authorities and public services. We are a generous nation, but we need to ensure that our resources, which, like those of any nation, are not infinite, are focused on helping the most vulnerable.
Significantly expanding our policy to enable children to sponsor family members goes against our safeguarding responsibilities. It would undoubtedly risk more children being encouraged, or even forced, to leave their family and risk hazardous, potentially life-threatening, journeys to the UK, potentially in the hands of criminal gangs.
I feared that the pull factor would emerge. It is really plausible? Let us suppose that the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, had already passed and was on the statute books. Here we are around the supper table in Kandahar: Father says, “Little Omar, you must set out tonight over the hills. You must get yourself to Britain, because that is the way we will get in—you will sponsor us.” Is it really plausible? As a number of speakers have pointed out, when the EU Committee looked at the question, we could find absolutely no evidence that the pull factor had ever operated or was operating now. Why does the Minister keep citing it?
My Lords, this is an area where I know noble Lords will look at the same things and draw different conclusions, and the scenario that the noble Lord paints is one. Another scenario that is more likely is where we see criminal gangs that have no shame and no compunction about exploiting the desperation of very vulnerable people. It is not parents willingly sending their children overseas in advance, but their being encouraged to do so by people who are making money and turning a profit from the desperation of vulnerable people. Sadly we do see that, and it is that which informs our policy and which we want to stop. I know that all noble Lords who have spoken today want to reunite families, and I know that that is the intention of the noble Baroness’s Bill, but we fear that, in this respect, it could have the opposite effect from what she intends.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and others referred to the “first safe country” principle. That is indeed our policy, and it is for the safety and protection of those fleeing persecution or distress. Article 31 of the 1951 convention is clear that people should travel directly to where they are seeking protection. The principle that people should claim refuge in the first safe country that they reach is an established EU concept and, while we are no longer a member of the European Union, we expect members states to continue to abide by it.
My Lords, we have safe and legal routes, such as the vulnerable persons relocation scheme that we set up in relation to Syria and the scheme in relation to Afghanistan, which noble Lords have drawn attention to today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked about paragraph 319X. Our rules are designed to cater for immediate family, but we have rules in place, such as paragraph 319X, to allow extended family to reunite where there are compelling circumstances. This is an important test to ensure that children come to the UK only where it is in their best interest. Her Bill would also reinstate legal aid in family reunion cases. We are committed to providing clear guidance and application forms to support people through the family reunion process. Legal aid is paid for by taxpayers and, again, resources are not limitless. It is important that it is provided to those who need it most, including those who claim asylum. Significantly, legal aid for refugee family reunion may already be available under the exceptional case funding scheme. In 2019, the Government amended the scope of legal aid so that separated migrant children are able to receive civil legal aid for applications by their family members and extended family members. This includes entry clearance, leave to enter, or leave to remain in the UK, made under the Immigration Rules or outside the rules on the basis of exceptional circumstances or compassionate and compelling circumstances.
As I have set out, our family reunion policy is designed to welcome the immediate family members of those recognised as requiring our protection here in the UK, but we also provide protection to the most vulnerable people direct from regions of conflict and instability. Sadly, global humanitarian need continues to grow, with over 82 million people around the world forced from their homes and around 25 million refugees. Noble Lords have spoken of the importance of safe and legal routes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, just did in her intervention. The UK’s generous resettlement schemes are an integral part of our response to this challenge, addressing the needs of some of the most vulnerable refugees and providing safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives here in the United Kingdom.
As noble Lords mentioned, the Government also recently set out plans to introduce an Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. I am grateful to those noble Lords who welcomed it and who showed their appreciation for the work of my honourable friend Victoria Atkins, the Minister responsible. This will see 5,000 vulnerable people welcomed here in the next year, with up to 20,000 in the longer term. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, asked five specific questions about the ACRS. As they were detailed and slightly separate from the scope of the Bill, I hope he will forgive me if I commit to write with further detail, having spoken to my honourable friend and her team, as I know the work on this scheme continues. I commit to answering the five questions he posed.
I quite understand. I am grateful to the Minister and I am happy that he should write. I was cheating a little, I agree—but I would be very grateful if he could convey to his colleagues the need to announce the details of the ACRS as soon as possible and the need to ensure the deployment of the DWP staff with the money cards out to the hotels as soon as possible.
I am sure that my colleagues appreciate that, but I will certainly convey the feeling of your Lordships’ House today to them to underscore that.
In addition, the Mandate resettlement scheme resettles refugees who have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them.
The Government recently completed their review of safe and legal routes for protection claimants who are in the European Union, and went further by considering the routes available to those outside the EU as well, reflecting our new global approach to the immigration system. It included family reunion for unaccompanied children.
To inform our proposals, the Government carried out a comprehensive public consultation as part of the new plan for immigration consultation, which concluded on 6 May. We carefully considered responses to the consultation and laid a report in Parliament on 22 July, confirming that the UK wants to be bold and ambitious in the safe and legal routes it provides. On refugee family reunion, we will look to take further measures to ensure that our use of exceptional circumstances is clearer and more transparent. This will ensure that decision-makers have the right tools to make consistent decisions and that applicants will have greater transparency on how applications will be assessed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked about the case for increasing the age to 21. We committed to review the case for extending the age for children up to 21 in the consultation but decided not to take it forward. The Government feel that the current rules provide a generous route, with more than 30,000 people reunited in the last five years.
I thank noble Lords again for their contributions throughout this thoughtful, sincere and passionate debate. Although I fear we will disappoint the noble Baroness in relation to her Bill, we will continue to reflect on the points that have been made and the questions posed in considering our approach on this very important issue and look forward to further debate and discussion on them in the future.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has taken part in this debate. I cannot sum up everyone’s contributions, but my noble friend Lord Paddick and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, did a very good job of surveying all the contributions. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for giving the support of his group to this Private Member’s Bill.
I will pick out just one or two points. Several noble Lords agreed with the initial remark by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that if you do not offer more safe and legal routes, in this case for families to be reunited, the traffickers will have a field day. We all agree. The Government say that they want to cut down on trafficking and no one could disagree with that. It is a cruel and exploitative trade, and the way to combat it is to make sure that people with a legitimate case, which I would contend this Bill expands, can arrive safely and legally.
Many noble Lords talked about the case for humanity and the welfare of people. In response to the Minister saying—I am not sure on what basis his figure was derived—that we could see tens of thousands more people coming through family reunion routes and that resources are not limitless, I agree. However, one of the points about family reunion is that increasing the welfare of all involved and enabling their mental health and well-being to be supported means that they are more likely to be productive and contribute, and not to make a claim on public resources. That is half the point.
While I will never allow the Conservative Party to grab the mandate of “party of the family”—I think all parties would claim that—the reason why I cited Victoria Atkins and Caroline Nokes is that allowing families to group together is not only for their well-being but makes good economic sense. That is why I said that it ought to please the Treasury. I ask the Government to look at that case—by allowing families to get together, you can save money as well as spend it.
Lastly, I have to say that I still believe that the Government have not brought forward any evidence for their contention of a pull factor. They keep trotting out the same allegation, but they do not have any evidence for it. This is wild speculation. If the Government do have any evidence, it is about time they were able to produce it.
I was very encouraged by most contributions in this debate. The Minister said some useful things in his response. Of course, I welcome whatever channels there are already for family reunion, but I ask the Government to have another look at this. Bringing families back together is a case not just of the heart but of the head as well.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 2.53 pm.