My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to propose Second Reading of this important Private Member’s Bill. While there are some small additions in this Bill to the version I moved last September, the core of it is unchanged—so my themes today are no different, because the case is an enduring one. I am very grateful to all the speakers in today’s debate and to all the organisations that back the Bill and have supported, encouraged and briefed us. The admirable Families Together Coalition comprises not only the Refugee Council and British Red Cross but UNHCR, Amnesty International UK and Oxfam GB, as well as others.
I and my party colleagues have long been calling for the Government to expand their restrictive rules on family reunion for refugees and those with humanitarian protection, as have parliamentarians across the political spectrum. I must put at the top of that list my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who is not able to be here today but who introduced versions of this Bill twice in previous Sessions, and whose expertise and commitment to this cause and many others in the field of asylum and immigration have inspired me and continue to do so. I hope today will start a process of fourth time lucky for a Bill to expand refugee family reunion.
The Bill will enable child refugees to sponsor their parents and siblings, as well as expand the range of family members whom adult refugees are allowed to sponsor to include siblings, parents and adult dependent children. The Bill will ensure that everyone with refugee or humanitarian protection status in the UK can access family reunion, rather than constraining rights according to the way that they arrived in the UK, and will reintroduce legal aid for family reunion cases.
In the previous Session, at Second Reading I said that the Bill was timely; it is even more so now because recent events highlight its pertinence. Families being torn apart is one of the most painful consequences of any conflict, and the current crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine are no exception. We now have the example of the Government showing that they know that refugees need their families by acting quickly—albeit following a public outcry—to introduce the Ukraine family scheme, which allows Ukrainians in the UK to sponsor a wide range of extended family members, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces and children of any age. The generosity of this scheme represents the UK at our best and should be a model.
We have a proud British tradition of providing sanctuary to those in need, from the 10,000 Jewish children rescued from the horrors of the Holocaust through the Kindertransport, to the 20,000 Syrians resettled on the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. My Bill extends this proud tradition, ensuring that all those recognised as refugees or needing humanitarian protection in the UK are able to safely reunite with their loved ones on a fairly broad definition, though not as broad as the Ukrainian scheme.
The Ukraine family scheme shows clearly that the Government appreciate the point that new refugees are better able to integrate with the support of their family. Indeed, that is one main reason why refugee family reunion is a feature of asylum systems around the world—the other, of course, being that it is simply inhumane to keep families apart. Are the Government taking the wide definition of family under the Ukraine family scheme as a spur to the consideration of expanding family reunion for all refugees?
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. Imagine trying to move forward with your life and work while worrying about the safety of family back home.
Research from the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Save the Children and others consistently shows that refugees find it harder to integrate when they are plagued by such worries. One refugee child explained: “I am unable to concentrate on my studies and when I go home, I always think about them and at night I do not sleep.” Let us not forget that 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 who might be supported by parents or other relatives if they were allowed to come to the UK. What assessment have the Government made of the ability of unaccompanied refugee children to integrate in the UK given their lack of refugee family reunion rights?
As well as events in Ukraine, reports from Afghanistan have also highlighted the importance of family. We have heard the many anguished accounts of those who could not locate their families in time to gather them together for an evacuation flight. Those refugees desperately need the opportunity to bring their families back together.
Afghan refugees received a government promise when Kabul was evacuated last August that their relatives would be able to join them but, 10 months later, 6,500 families find themselves unable to bring those relatives. One reason seems to be that they have not yet been granted a protection status. What progress is being made to institute a free, accessible family reunion route for those Afghan refugees evacuated in August 2021 who are still waiting, fearing for the safety of loved ones?
My Bill seeks to change the present rule in the UK that child refugees are not allowed to sponsor any family members, not even their parents, while adult refugees are allowed to sponsor only their partners or their children under 18 via refugee family reunion. Organisations working with refugees in the UK regularly witness the pain that people face when separated from their adult children who do not currently qualify but are still at risk or are living in precarious situations.
Rather than taking action to bring refugee families together, the Home Secretary is restricting family reunion rights even further. On 28 June, many of the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Act came into effect, including a new provision that restricts access to family reunion for certain—so-called group 2—refugees according to how they have travelled to the UK. That could mean that 3,500 people a year stay separated. The Home Secretary asks us to believe that this harshness is necessary to deter unsafe channel crossings in small boats, but by restricting family reunion, all she is doing is driving vulnerable women and children into the hands of ruthless people smugglers.
In the past year, 6,000 people have arrived safely in the UK via refugee family reunion, more than 90% of whom were women and children. Those family members may themselves be in an unsafe situation, and with family reunion restricted, some will resort to finding dangerous alternatives. This is what happened in Australia and is the opposite of what the Government say they seek to achieve. By restricting this route, the Home Secretary is forcing women and children to make a choice that no one should have to make: face indefinite separation from their loved ones or risk their lives to be reunited. If the Home Secretary were serious about combating people smuggling and protecting vulnerable women and children, she would expand access to refugee family reunion. What estimate have the Government made of a possible increase in dangerous journeys by women and children as result of restrictions on refugee family reunion in the Nationality and Borders Act?
The Home Secretary often cites as evidence of some kind of mischief that many asylum seekers who reach these shores are young men. The first thing to note about this is that the recognition rate for these claimants for asylum is an average of 75% at first instance, and half of those who appeal win their case, so the final rate of acceptance for refugee status is around 85%. The other thing to note is that of course it is their sons whom families send on dangerous journeys, both because they are more at risk at home from police violence, forced lifetime conscription as in Eritrea or recruitment to the Taliban, and because it would be inconceivable to place the well-being of a young daughter in the tender hands of the Taliban, the largely male smuggling gangs or a refugee camp. As Conservative MP and former Home Office Minister Caroline Nokes said in a debate on Afghanistan on 18 August last year:
“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.]
Perhaps that is a question the Minister might like to answer.
The Government have made one policy change that I welcome. New guidance on fee waivers says that the test for those applying for entry visas on family grounds, including where the sponsor is a refugee, is no longer exceptional circumstances but affordability. Although the way this is applied may be problematic, it represents progress. It is a pity that this sensible approach cannot be translated to the family reunion provisions of the Immigration Rules, which remain narrow and rigid.
The purpose of this Bill is, first, to expand the criteria of who qualifies as a family member for the purposes of refugee family reunion. Secondly, it gives refugee children in the UK the right to sponsor their family members to join them, as in almost every other European country. Thirdly, the Bill reintroduces legal aid for refugee family reunion cases. Fourthly, it requires respect for the refugee convention.
I imagine the Minister will again seek to deflect the case for this Bill by directing my attention not only to paragraph 319X of the Immigration Rules but to the discretion outside the rules. But those incorporate quite stiff fees, rely on tests such as “compelling”, “exceptional” or “unjustifiably harsh to refuse”, impose requirements that deny welfare support and recourse to public funds and offer only limited rather than indefinite leave. Discretion does not give the same certainty as changed rules.
The Government regularly trot out the argument that giving refugee children the right to bring close family to join them in the same way as adults would be a pull factor. I again quote our former European Union Committee, which in its 2016 report on unaccompanied minors said:
“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.”
Legal aid was withdrawn in 2012 on the basis that applications for family reunion were “straightforward”, but this is often not the case as they can be complex and time consuming, particularly when DNA tests or adoption cases are involved. The advantages of restoring legal aid would accrue not only to the applicant but to the Government, since the modest cost of helping the system to function better—remember that the real problem in the Home Office is the enormous backlog—would actually save money.
When refugees arrive here in the UK having left loved ones behind, reuniting with their families is the very first thing on their minds. In the words of unaccompanied refugee children supported by Kent Refugee Action Network:
“It feels as if a part of us is missing.”
I think we can all understand that sentiment, that aching hole in their lives.
To conclude, the case for a more generous approach to family reunion for refugees is based on both the humanitarian case, which I contend is 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, our country and the Treasury. We must do all we can to protect people forced to flee their homes to escape war and persecution, and to help them re-establish their lives in freedom and safety. That must include reuniting them with their families through safe and legal routes. If the Government are serious about strengthening safe routes and supporting women and children, they will back the Bill. I sincerely hope the Minister can give me a positive response today. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, in her Private Member’s Bill on family reunion. We discussed these issues just a few months ago during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill and I do not want to rehearse all those arguments now. Instead, I want to focus on the evidence of what happens to people when we do not allow family reunion.
We hear a great deal about the Kindertransport children of 1939 in this House and, indeed, nationally. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who I am delighted to see in his place today, is one of those Kinder. We treat the Kindertransport scheme as an iconic success and a heroic endeavour. In some ways, it was; it saved many lives. But recent research has made it very clear that it did so at considerable cost to those children, as well as those parents.
Take the book Into the Arms of Strangers by Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer. In it, one of the Kindertransportees, Robert Sugar, who was only eight when he was sent to England, recalls that
“the younger you were, the more unforgiving you are of your parents. You may say oh, they were so brave and saved you, but they really abandoned you. We were four friends [all Kinder] ... and the only serious conversation we had [as children] we all agreed if it ever happened again, we will not send away our children, we will stay together no matter what. That’s what we said”—
out of the mouths of babes. As it happened, Sugar’s mother was already in the UK on a domestic visa, as my mother was, but they saw each other so rarely that each time was like another abandonment. He was relieved when she stopped visiting, because it was so painful. Like all children who were separated from their families for the war’s duration, growing up alone and reuniting as young adults eight, nine or 10 years later, his reunion with his parents was extremely difficult and painful as well.
Jennifer Craig-Norton’s book, The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory, says much the same. In a recent personal email to me, she added that
“every Kindertransportee who was Robert Sugar’s age or younger that I have ever spoken with (and there have been dozens ...) felt exactly the same way—a deep, crippling sense of abandonment. They were just too young to understand why they were being sent away and none of them ever got over it. In fact, every Kindertransportee I have known has carried a deep well of sadness within them, regardless of their age when separated from their families, regardless of whether or not their parents survived, regardless of how successful their subsequent lives have been.”
We know that many of the Kindertransportees lived very successful lives and continue to do so. Nevertheless, the key words are despair, dismay, puzzlement and sorrow, and a sense of abandonment was commonplace, even among those who were treated wonderfully and given a real welcome—which was true for many.
This is hard evidence. Back in 1939, this country decided to take children, because they were thought easier to assimilate, and not their parents. We now seem to wish to follow the same pattern and make family reunion harder and harder, despite knowing from this research the long-term effects our policy is likely to lead to. We must take the evidence seriously, so I ask the Minister to commit the Government to assess what we know about separation seriously; look again at the present policies, particularly those that came into force just last June; support this Bill; and tell us, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, just said, what assessment the Government have made about unaccompanied refugee children being able to integrate into UK society, given their lack of family reunion rights.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak today in support of this Bill. In doing so, I declare my interests as a member of the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy—RAMP—project and as a trustee of Reset.
The Bill proposes sensible provisions to consider the wider notion of family when enabling refugee families to come back together. Family reunification is often a neglected safe and legal route. The simple principle is that those who have been forced apart from family members due to persecution, war and other factors should be able to rebuild their lives with their loved ones when they have been granted protection as a refugee. In recent years, the largest safe route to the UK has been via family reunion, with 90% of those travelling this way being women and children.
It is on children that I would like to focus, namely the right of a child to reunite with their family, particularly their parents, when rebuilding a life here in the UK. Currently, we have the situation where we decide to layer more trauma on a child by expecting them to grow up separated from their parents and be placed in state care. Across Europe, the UK is simply an outlier in this regard.
We often hear the right to a family life spoken about in a negative way when deportations are prevented or delayed based on this principle, but we do not hear enough about a child’s right to a family life when arriving in the UK unaccompanied. Take Bibi, who was evacuated from Afghanistan last summer. She is now 18 and has been caring for her younger siblings, aged 16 and eight, alone in the UK since becoming separated from their parents in the crush outside Kabul airport. She is terrified for her parents, who have been questioned and harassed by the Taliban.
Bibi has had to grow up fast, caring for her two younger siblings alone. She says:
“In the chaos we lost our parents—my brother was holding my dad’s hand, my sister held my mum’s hand.
At the airport the army were using tear gas so we couldn’t see each other—it was terrifying. We were all crying, we couldn’t find our parents but we knew it wasn’t safe for us to leave the airport to find them.
When I see my sister so sad I can’t control myself. My sixteen-year-old brother also wants and needs his mum and dad. It’s hard living with such uncertainty, we don’t know when we will get a house to live in and if our mum and dad will be able to come and live in it with us. It is best for my sister and brother to have their mum and dad back. It is best for our future. My sister needs her mother, I am not her mother. We don’t have another choice, we need them to come here.”
This is an intolerable situation and has occurred through no fault of either the parents or their brave children.
Without an expansion of family reunion rights for children, families will remain separated and those who are here, while safe, will remain unable to move forward with their lives. I therefore ask the Minister: what assessment have the Government made about the ability of unaccompanied refugee children to integrate in the UK, given their lack of refugee family reunion rights?
It is also important to acknowledge that although refugees do not undertake dangerous journeys lightly, without access to safe routes relatives will be more likely to travel informally to be reunited with their loved ones. It is of note that in the first quarter of this year, the top nationality crossing the channel in boats were people from Afghanistan.
Often when reviewing legislation, I keep in mind the verse from the Book of Micah: God has told you what is good, to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. This can be broadly interpreted as, “How can we be and do better?” This Bill proposes a way to do this in the interests of the child, and I urge the Government to consider its proposals carefully.
My Lords, again, I offer the Green group’s support for the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, brought to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. I pay tribute to her long-term and dedicated work, and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Indeed, I see the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in his place. Your Lordships’ House has a proud record on this; we really need to see some progress from the Government on it.
I will attempt not to repeat what has already been said; basically, I agree with every word. I will focus on just three points. The first is legal aid. The practical reality is that you can have whatever law you like, but if you do not have the ability to exercise rights under that law, justice unfunded is justice denied. Without legal aid, it is impossible for people to exercise properly the rights they have.
The history of this is that, under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, refugee family reunion applications were removed from access to legal aid. The practical reality is that campaigning groups, charities and those supporting refugees—very often child refugees, as the right reverend Prelate said—have to find funding to support their legal costs in cases to exert the rights they have. I am sure the Minister will argue that this is a simple administrative procedure, but the practicality is that this is extremely complex and difficult. Refugees usually need to rely on at least a solicitor. This Bill is crucial in restoring legal aid for refugee family reunion cases. It will not introduce a new right; it just means that people can exercise rights that already exist.
The second point I would like to pick up is that raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, who pointed out that this Bill is similar to a number of Bills that have been introduced. However, circumstances of refugee policy have changed significantly even since the last time this Bill was introduced. We have had a great deal of reference to the situation of Afghan refugees, and we have the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
I feel I have to take this opportunity to note that a case recently highlighted that there are still 180 British Council contractors trapped in Afghanistan, of whom 85 are regarded as being at extremely high risk. The Government have made special provision to allow them to apply for refugee status, but they have had no advice or, as I understand it, support on getting out of Afghanistan, which is, of course, essential for them to exercise that right. I do not know whether the Minister can provide any information on that but I would be very interested in it.
There is the Afghan situation, the Hong Kong British national (overseas) visa and Ukrainian refugees, who have already been widely referred to, so we have seen real change in the approach to refugees in the past year or so, but it is limited to certain groups and nationalities. Surely refugee rights are some of the most basic rights that must apply to all people fleeing persecution, war and danger, not just those from some countries. The situation is different from when we have previously debated this Bill.
Finally, like the right reverend Prelate I want to pick up the situation of children. We have far fewer rights for children for family reunion than almost every other European country. Do the Government really want to be world-leading in cruelty to child refugees, some of the most vulnerable people on this planet? I acknowledge that the Government are world-leading in this, but I rather doubt that they will acknowledge that fact—although it is a fact.
I always believe that we should try to listen to the voices of others in your Lordships’ House. Like others from the Families Together campaign group, I received a statement from the Kent Refugee Action Network’s youth ambassadors. I previously heard them speaking, and a powerful and wonderfully impressive group of young people they are. They say:
“Young refugees must face hostile immigration and other challenges alone. This is doubly hard without the support of our families. And even when we do well, and are lucky enough to secure a university place, there is no one to share this with as other young people can. For important choices about our futures, there is no Dad or Mum to talk to. When life is tough, we feel broken with no embrace to reassure us. It is as if part of us is missing.”
It is a government policy choice to create that situation, and I say that that is indefensible.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on bringing forward this Bill and on her persistence with this issue. I have been in this House quite a long time, but I do not think I have spoken in the gap before. I very much appreciate the opportunity to do so, and I shall keep my comments very brief.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, referred to the Kindertransport. Off the Central Lobby, in the Commons, there is a plaque which is a thank you to the people of Britain on behalf of the 10,000 children who came on the Kindertransport, mainly from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. That was a pretty generous gesture by this country, and I wish we could have remained more generous.
The issue of family reunion has a long history, and many of us have been arguing for years. I applaud the Library paper on the Bill, as it is a very good history of what has happened—the Library has done a pretty good job.
I know this Bill goes wider than children, but I shall comment on children in particular. Your Lordships will remember that, when we were members of the EU, there was something called the Dublin treaty, and particularly Dublin III. Under that provision—here I am using shorthand—a child in one EU country could apply to join relatives in another. That was a very sensible measure, and a number of children came to this country under that provision. Then came the 2017 Act. This House moved to include that same provision as a basis for negotiating our departure from the EU, so it would have remained. That was passed here and the Government accepted it in the Commons, but it was then removed in the 2019 Act.
I was puzzled about that. If I may go into a bit of history, I was invited to a meeting here with three government Ministers and seven officials, one of them from the Cabinet Office, all trying to persuade me that everything would be okay and I should not fuss too much since the rights of children to family reunion with relatives in this country would be maintained. Of course, hardly any have come here since then and the door has effectively been closed. That is why I particularly welcome this Bill, which is trying to keep the door open.
There is natural concern about people coming across the channel in unsafe dinghies, and there is total condemnation of the people smugglers who exploit people and endanger lives. However, I still believe that the way to stop smuggling is to provide safe and legal routes. If any of us were children in Calais and we had family here, surely we would do the same thing: we would use any possible means to get here. I welcome this Bill as providing one such possible means.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap, and I promise to be brief. I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has pioneered so much good work on this subject, and commend the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for introducing the Bill and being so persistent.
I would like to take everyone back to remember just what it felt like during the pandemic and how we all became conscious of the importance of family. Many people said as we came through it that the one thing they desperately missed was not entertainment or being able to go out but family. Life has changed and attitudes have changed, and many more people now put family ahead of anything else in the way that they approach things. That is what the Bill is about, and we should remember how we felt.
We have shown a degree of compassion over Ukraine, but all too often when refugees arrive in this country there is a feeling that the country is actively hostile to them. There are boys aged 16 to 18—children—who are living in hotels in Kent and elsewhere in the country, and have been there for a long time, where they are effectively under house arrest. That is not what they need; they need to be with their families, and to be able to bring those families in. The Red Cross says that
“family reunion should be a vital, safe and legal way for refugee families to reunite after they have been torn apart by war and persecution”,
but its latest report on the subject concludes that the UK does not provide that.
I ask the Minister to say whether he is confident that the country is doing all it can to provide a safe route for people who have been through the most appalling circumstances. Could he just consider how important family is to those of us who live in a safe environment, and remember that family can be a varied concept and is not necessarily the nuclear family that some are used to? It may involve people who do not sit within the normal categories that we are used to, and we need to be tolerant, understanding and compassionate in bringing in new legislation. I commend the Bill.
My Lords, before speaking to the Bill, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who never fails to move the House with his personal experience, even when speaking in the gap.
It is a great pleasure to support this Private Member’s Bill, which my noble friend Lady Ludford inherited from my noble friend Lady Hamwee. I hope she will not mind me saying so, not least because my noble friend Lady Hamwee said it, but it has improved since. Both my noble friends have demonstrated tenacity and stamina in their attempts to improve the situation for refugees and asylum seekers.
It is bad enough to be a refugee fleeing persecution or war, such as those displaced by Putin’s dreadful illegal war in Ukraine, let alone to be separated from your family, not least if you are a child under 18. It is at times of danger and trauma that we need our families around us most, let alone when you are in a foreign country, where you may not even speak the language and are navigating a complex legal system on your own. The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, reminded us of how we felt when we were separated from our families during the pandemic.
This very simple Bill puts some heart back into this country’s immigration policy when this Government have been doing everything they can to make it more difficult for people to claim asylum in the UK. In a quite reasonable and limited way, the Bill extends those eligible to be granted leave to enter and remain in the UK for family reunion. As my noble friend said, the definition is not extended as far as that which was used in the Ukrainian refugee scheme. Why was a broader definition adopted for Ukrainian refugees? If the Government will not support the Bill, what is the difference, as far as Ukrainian refugees are concerned? The Bill also restores eligibility for legal aid to make such an application.
The current rules are too restrictive if, for example, the sponsor of a child or partner has not yet received a decision on their asylum claim, or if the sponsor is under 18. As we heard, there is a mounting backlog of asylum claims that have yet to be decided, with some decisions extending into months and even years. An unaccompanied minor is in even more need of their family than a traumatised adult—yet the UK is almost alone in Europe in not allowing an unaccompanied asylum seeker to sponsor their family to join them, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said. His story of a family separated in Kabul was compelling. Apart from the welfare of the child, the cost of safeguarding them is bound to be higher than if they were placed with other family members.
A very similar Bill passed through this House in the last Session without amendment, with Labour support, but it ran out of time in the other place because the Government would not support it. As my noble friend explained, there are some differences from last time, brought about, I expect, by the need to counter the truly dreadful Nationality and Borders Act—for example by ensuring that the Immigration Rules do not contravene the 1951 UN refugee convention and apply equally to all who are granted protection status, whether they are deemed to be group 1 or group 2 refugees under the 2022 Act. The situation is being made worse by the UK-Rwanda migration and economic development partnership, potentially making family reunion even more difficult.
The Government’s response the last time a similar Bill was debated was vague, general and not based on evidence. What inevitable “challenging burdens” would such a Bill create for the Home Office, local authorities and wider public services, when the Government allow over a million migrants to enter the UK to study or work in higher-paid jobs? Asylum seekers represent a tiny fraction of immigration into the UK, and any increase as a result of the Bill would be smaller still.
In 2020, according to the excellent briefing provided by the House of Lords Library, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration described the application process for family reunion as “potentially confusing”, in particular the guidance provided for applicants. He called on the Home Office to listen to stakeholders who had called for the eligibility criteria for sponsors and applicants to be expanded, enabling access to legal aid—exactly what this Bill attempts to do.
Refugee Action has criticised the rules as very restrictive when applied to families torn apart by war, such as people caring for orphaned younger siblings and unaccompanied children separated from their parents. This Bill would address those concerns. The Families Together Coalition has said that, if the Government are serious about their ambition to expand so-called safe routes, they should expand the criteria of who qualifies for family reunion and reintroduce legal aid for all family reunion cases. This Bill would address the coalition’s concerns as well.
My noble friend talked about how the visa fee waiver for family reunion is now based on affordability and said that that was progress. As we debated in the House on Wednesday, the affordability rules in themselves appear designed to deter anyone from applying, both because of the unreasonable definition of what is essential expenditure and the sheer complexity of the nature and extent of the proof required to show that the visa fee should be waived—perhaps two steps forward and one step back. The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, reminded noble Lords of the likely consequences if the Bill is not enacted. This Bill has been crafted and improved over the years; it is now perfectly formed and we should support it.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for introducing this Bill today. I am happy to support it. The Government tell us—I was very interested to read the briefing note with its three points—that their objectives and plan for immigration are
“To make the system fairer and more effective to better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum … To deter illegal entry into the UK breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and saving lives … To remove from the UK those with no right to be here.”
Actually, who could disagree with those words? That is all fine; we have no problem with that at all. The problem, of course, is the implementation. We all want to do those things, but I think it is fair to say that, beyond them, the position is unclear, confusing and not doing the job that the Government say they want to do.
I have been in this House for 12 years and have lost count of the number of immigration Bills that have come forward from the Government in that time. In every Session there is another one, and it is supposed to be the Bill that will sort out all the problems: this is the one we have been waiting for. “We could have had it in the last Bill, but here is another Bill” and it goes on and on. Nothing is actually solved: there is always another scheme; it is always somebody else’s problem, somebody else’s fault. At the end of the day, the Government are the Government; they need to get their act together and they are failing dramatically to do that.
There are so many schemes that I cannot remember them all. It was really useful to get the briefing note from the Library, because I had forgotten some of the schemes that are in place. We had the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, the Hong Kong British national (overseas) visa, the Dubs scheme that has now been stopped, the gateway protection programme, the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme and the UK resettlement scheme. None of these schemes is doing what it is supposed to be doing and that is part of the problem.
Look at the Dubs scheme. It was brought in when amendments were passed in the name of my noble friend Lord Dubs and then, when 480 children were brought into the UK, the Government shut the scheme down. Does anyone really believe that all we needed to do was bring 480 children into the country and the problem would be solved? Of course, they do not, but the Government decided to shut the scheme down and that is partly why we are here today with this Bill.
We need a scheme and a policy that protects and looks after vulnerable people when they come to the UK. We listened to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and his description of the children coming from Afghanistan was heartbreaking. Thousands of miles away with no parents, they are left here and it is heartbreaking; they do not know where their parents are.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, said, we all missed our family—and we had the luck of living in a safe country. How would you feel if you were a young person and did not know where your parents were? You cannot get hold of them; you do not know whether they are going to get there. Then, of course, you have the Government here not doing what they should be doing.
We all talk about the need for safe and legal routes. We want safe and legal routes—they are what the Government have failed to provide, and they are the particular issue this Bill is trying to deal with—but let us also look at the issue of criminal gangs. I want the people responsible, the criminals, caught. I want them prosecuted and put out of business. That would involve the authorities here working with our partners across the channel, but that is not happening. There is lots of huffing and puffing going on—lots of bullets being fired and people moaning about whose fault it is—but we actually need to talk with our colleagues in France, Belgium, Holland and elsewhere to put these people out of business once and for all.
If we deal with that and have safe and legal routes, we will begin to sort the problem out. That is where we are going wrong here. So, as I said, I am happy to support the noble Baroness’s Bill. It is an attempt to get those things right. If we do not do so, we will end up coming back here again and again to deal with issues that have not been solved and more immigration Bills that achieve very little. We will not get anywhere.
I support the Bill and hope that we will get a positive response from the Minister. I expect that we will not, but perhaps he will surprise me. This issue is not going to go away until the Government deal with the question of how we can have proper safe and legal routes and deal with the criminal gangs. This Bill is one attempt to deal with those problems, which we all know are there and are heartbreaking to see.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for raising this important and sensitive issue; I extend those thanks to her colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who I know has also been very persistent on this subject.
I thank noble Lords for the thoughtful, and in many cases powerful and passionate, contributions we have heard today. I join the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in singling out the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I have not had the opportunity to say this from the Dispatch Box before, but I have long been an admirer of his—indeed, since before I came into this House. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger; I was moved by her points on a sense of abandonment. I will read the accounts to which she referred because I would like to know more about them.
Many noble Lords referenced integration assessments. These sit outside the Home Office; they are a separate departmental issue. I think they are probably for the Department for Education, although I would need to confirm that. I will, however, raise the subject with that department, and I commit to write; I cannot go further on that at this point.
I begin by reassuring noble Lords that we listen carefully to their contributions. Indeed, this Government fully support the principle of family unity and share their concerns for those families who have been separated by conflict or oppression. It is for precisely this reason that the Government already have a comprehensive framework for reuniting refugees with their families here in the UK. I remind noble Lords that this framework is set out in the Immigration Rules and our refugee family reunion policy.
The Government’s policy fully recognises that families can become fragmented because of the nature of conflict and persecution and the speed and manner in which those seeking protection are often forced to flee their own country; we have heard many such heartbreaking stories throughout this debate. The family reunion policy allows those recognised as refugees or granted humanitarian protection in the UK to sponsor their spouse or partner and children under the age of 18 to join them here if the family unit was formed before their refugee sponsor fled their country of origin. This has seen more than 41,000 individuals reunited with their refugee family members since 2015—a significant number that highlights the policy’s success as a safe and legal route for families to reunite in the UK.
I would point out that not only is there no fee to make a refugee family reunion application, but sponsors are also not required to meet any financial or maintenance requirements to be reunited. This is extended to ensure that the immediate family of refugees can reunite here in the UK, without unnecessary barriers. There are also existing rules in place for extended families of refugees in the UK to sponsor children where there are serious and compelling circumstances. Further, our policy is clear that refugees can sponsor adult-dependent relatives living overseas to join them where, due to circumstances such as age, illness or disability, that person requires long-term personal care that can be provided only by relatives here in the UK.
The Government recognise that some applicants do not meet the current rules. That is why the policy additionally makes it clear that there is discretion to grant leave, outside of 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.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Government completed their review of safe and legal routes last year and laid a report in Parliament on 22 July 2021 confirming that the UK wants to be bold and ambitious in the safe and legal routes it provides. On family reunion, we have further clarified in the Immigration Rules the range of scenarios in which exceptional circumstances may be engaged, so that our decision-makers have the right tools to make consistent decisions while applicants will have greater transparency on how applications will be assessed. The new Immigration Rules came into force on 28 June, as has been noted. Alongside them, we have also improved our guidance to provide clarity about the application process to make it easier for applicants to understand what is expected of them.
This Bill would allow for potentially tens of thousands of extended family members to be entitled to come here, with challenging implications for our local authorities and public services. Expanding the policy to extended family would absolutely have a significant impact on already stretched public resources. We need to ensure our limited resources are focused on helping the most vulnerable. Further, we are clear that significantly expanding our policy to enable children to sponsor family members goes against our safeguarding responsibilities. It is highly likely that this would create further incentives for more children to be encouraged, or even forced, to leave their family and risk extremely dangerous journeys to the UK in order to later sponsor relatives.
I accept that this is disputed but, as an aside, we know that this is something a number of EU states have experienced, so it would achieve the opposite outcome to that desired by the Bill. Such an approach would open children up to a huge exploitation risk, which completely contradicts the hard work and commitment the Home Office has made in protecting children from modern slavery and exploitation. We refuse to play into the hands of criminal gangs, and therefore cannot extend this policy to allow child refugees to sponsor family members into the UK. Such a move would undoubtedly risk more children being encouraged, or even forced, to leave their families and risk hazardous, potentially life-threatening, journeys to the UK—potentially in the hands of criminal gangs.
I must also stress that while family unity is a key priority under this policy, your Lordships will appreciate that we have a range of aims further to this, including ensuring that we have reasonable control over immigration and that public services, such as schools and hospitals, are not placed under unreasonable pressure. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked how, in that case, we could square it with granting a million visas for higher-paying jobs. I would have thought that the clue is in the question: they are higher-paying jobs, so they impose less of a strain on public services, particularly social housing and what have you.
Article 8 of the ECHR, the right to respect for family and private life, is a qualified right. It is therefore the prerogative of a responsible Government to consider the economic well-being of the country and balance Article 8 with the interest of the public purse.
The Bill also proposes reinstating legal aid in family reunion cases. However, I remind noble Lords that legal aid for refugee family reunion may already be available under the exceptional case funding scheme, where failure to provide legal aid would mean a breach or a risk of breach of the individual’s human rights, subject to means and merits tests. 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 or compassionate and compelling circumstances.
Legal aid is paid for by taxpayers and, as noble Lords will understand, resources are not limitless. It is important that it is provided for those most in need, including those who seek protection. As I set out earlier—
I will have to write the noble Baroness. I am sorry, I do not know.
As I set out, the Government’s family reunion policy is designed to welcome the immediate family members of those recognised as needing protection in the UK, but we also provide protection to the most vulnerable direct from regions of conflict and instability. Sadly, global humanitarian need continues to grow, with over 100 million people around the world forced from their homes and around 27 million refugees. I reiterate the UK’s generous resettlement offers, which are an integral component of our response to this challenge, addressing the needs of some of the most vulnerable refugees. The UK provides safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives here, through the new global UK resettlement scheme, as well as the community sponsorship and mandate resettlement schemes.
As has been referred to by many noble Lords, in January, the Government launched the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, providing up to 20,000 women, children and others at risk with a safe and legal route to resettle in the UK. I need to make it absolutely clear, particularly in reference to the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, that no children are detained in hotels. We have sought to provide a comfortable and supportive environment for children while they await permanent placement.
In March, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we launched the Ukraine family scheme and the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, both of which are uncapped and have allowed hundreds of thousands of individuals to seek sanctuary in the UK. I should point out how these schemes clearly demonstrate the commitment made by the Government’s new plan for immigration to strengthen our safe and legal routes to the UK for those in need of protection. The concessions put in place have been designed to address the very specific set of circumstances that have unfolded in Ukraine. These are time-limited and the honest answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about what the difference is, is that it is Putin’s war.
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, about the Dubs scheme, the Government did not shut it down; it was a one-off commitment that was completed. I cannot really argue with the numbers; I am not in a position to do that—it may well not have been the right number in the first place—but it was not shut down.
My Lords, may I protest just a little? What happened was that the Government said that no local authorities had any more places to accommodate children. I am afraid, however, that a lot of us found other local authorities that did. It was an arbitrary decision by the Government.
I will take the noble Lord’s point and investigate it further—I will leave it there for now.
I close my remarks by again thanking noble Lords for their insightful and thought-provoking contributions throughout this debate. I understand that this remains an emotive issue. I will ensure that the department continues to reflect on these debates in considering the Government’s approach on this important issue and I will look forward to further debate on these points in the future.
The noble Lord did not really mention anything about the point that many noble Lords made on the action needed in the channel. One problem here is that, for all the talk, there is a lack of action by the Government to deal with the issue in the channel. Hundreds of people cross in boats every week. What is happening? We get lots of “We’re doing this and we’re doing that”, but the fact is that, every week, hundreds of people, brought across by criminals and people smugglers, arrive on our shores. That is part of the problem. The noble Lord may not have any figures to hand but it is part of the problem that needs to be addressed.
I thank the noble Lord for that point. I am aware, as he is, of the high-level discussions happening on the other side of the channel. I should refer to something that will make me extraordinarily unpopular, which is of course the Rwanda scheme. That was an attempt to sort this problem out, which noble Lords opposite do not like very much.
My Lords, the Minister was not wrong in that last remark. I thank him very much for his reply, which I will come back to, but I want to thank everybody who has spoken in this debate. I was extremely pleased that we had the bonus of two extremely valuable extra speakers in the gap, which was wonderful.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, made a salutary correction to our historical perspective on the story of the Kindertransport. It was, of course, incomplete and she is right to focus our attention on the sadness and despair—I must get her note on the name of that book, though it will be in Hansard, obviously. I found what she said about the sense of abandonment very moving; how can children prosper in such circumstances? I was pleased that the Minister also picked up on that point. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham also raised the question of the trauma for the child in expecting them to grow up without their parents and quoted very moving testimony from Afghanistan.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked a pertinent question: do the Government want to be world leading in cruelty to child refugees? It is a fair question. She talked about not only having no one to embrace us, as refugees, in our sadness, but also having no one to share our successes with. I thought that was a very good point; it is not just about comfort but about celebration when we do well.
I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, reminded me; I second his thanks to the Library for its briefing note. Like everyone else across this House, I just think Alf, the noble Lord, is brilliant. I am pleased to serve with him on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. His efforts since 2017 especially, trying to keep the Dubs scheme going in the face of a disappointing response from the Government is nothing short of heroic.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, rightly reminded us of how the pandemic has highlighted our appreciation of family. Not to get noble Lords weeping for me, but I spent Christmas Day 2020 alone as a widow; I was supposed to go to a family Christmas but, because of lockdown, I could not. It was not that bad—I had loads of chocolate and silly TV and in my neck of the woods at least three shops are open on Christmas Day. I am not asking people to feel sorry for me but Christmas, if you celebrate it, is not normally a time when you like to be alone in this country; perhaps it brought home to me that sense of being alone.
My noble friend Lord Paddick talked about putting some heart back into immigration policy in this country. That is what this whole debate and the Bill are about. He reminded us of what a small fraction of total immigration family reunion—indeed, safe and legal routes generally—is. We are really not talking about some large extra cohort.
I very much welcome the support of the Labour Front Bench, expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. He made the very correct point that we get loads of new legislation. Like him, one loses track of all the immigration and asylum Bills, but what is lacking is any real action on tackling the criminal gangs, for which we certainly need co-operation with France and Europol. Of course, one of the great holes in the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU was any co-operation on security and justice issues, which is absurd given the history of how the UK championed a lot of the co-operation. We had the director of Europol for 10 years, for goodness’ sake, and now we have made ourselves absent. We need to put the criminal gangs out of business, and the way to do that is through safe and legal routes, of which this Bill is one.
That brings me to the response of the Minister, which was not dissimilar to the response I had last September. He tells us that the Government fully support the principle of family unity which is why they have a comprehensive policy. He tried to reassure us of the width and generosity of this policy, but he will forgive me if I am not terribly persuaded of that. The Minister talked about this Bill encompassing an extended family, but it does not really; it is quite nuclear, apart from adult dependent children. It is not nearly as wide, as my noble friend Lord Paddick pointed out, as the Ukraine family scheme. The Minister’s response to why that scheme is about extended family was to say that it is Putin’s war.
Other wars are indeed going on, and that is why refugees are fleeing, whether from Afghanistan, Sudan or the Middle East.
I regret that the Minister trotted out the “children are being forced to travel and exploited” line. It is rather like the debates during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act on the right to work, when the Migration Advisory Committee told us there was no evidence that the right to work was a pull factor. There is also no evidence that the ability of a child refugee to bring their nuclear family to join them is a pull factor or used as some kind of anchor. I am afraid the Government are playing into the hands of the criminal gangs by restricting safe and legal routes, of which family reunion is one of the strongest. Many of us in this House, certainly on this side, deplore that the Nationality and Borders Act brings in this restrictive treatment of so-called group 2 refugees, who are going to be in a worse situation regarding rights, including to family reunion. You cannot have it both ways; the Government say they have a broad and generous policy but have brought in an Act which deliberately restricts family reunion rights. I am afraid that what they are saying simply is not true.
Finally, the Minister talked about the burden on the public purse. But how do you know whether child refugees, or any refugees, are going to prosper? The Minister gave me a name about a war, and I will give him a name: Nadhim Zahawi. He came here, apparently at the age of 11, unable to speak any English.
Was he five? I thought he was 11; the press always says 11. Anyway, he has obviously been a very successful businessman and politician. How do you know who will prosper? Lots of refugees often prosper more than anybody else in the country because they have a sense of having to achieve something, and they also want to give back to the country. It is not just people who come on higher-paid immigrant visas who are an asset to the country. Many people who come without a bean to their name make a huge contribution. My noble friend reminds me that a lot of the visas currently being issued are for students, who do not have any income.
Altogether I find the Government’s argument not persuasive and rather incoherent. I remain convinced, as I believe everyone else who has spoken in this debate does, that to be more generous on refugee family reunion and other safe and legal routes would help marginalise the criminal gangs, would help refugees prosper and give back to this country, and would be a win-win all round. I must stop there.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.