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Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL]

Volume 827: debated on Friday 3 February 2023

Third Reading


Moved by

With noble Lords’ indulgence, I would like to make a few remarks. I warmly thank all who have supported this Private Member’s Bill and the cause of refugee family reunion in the last year. I principally thank my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who could not be here today but who made the first two attempts to get a version of this Bill on the statute book, who encouraged me to pick up the relay on my first—and now second—attempt and who inspires me generally on asylum and immigration issues. I also thank my noble friend Lord Paddick, who leads for these Benches on justice and home affairs matters and is steadfast in his championing of fairness and reasonableness in Home Office affairs. I also thank my honourable friend Tim Farron in the other place, who will seek to take this Bill, if approved today, through the House of Commons, as he sought to do last year in its previous iteration before it was defeated by Prorogation.

Colleagues in this House from other Benches have also been stalwart in their support of family reunion for refugees. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is of course in the top rank, but I am also very grateful to others who spoke up at Second Reading of this Bill last July and/or when we debated the same issue in Committee on the Nationality and Borders Bill almost exactly a year ago: the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, Lady Wheatcroft and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, Lord Hylton and Lord Coaker. I also thank Ministers who have engaged on this issue—although, so far, not very fruitfully.

Sadly, I do not have time to cite those who contributed on my previous Bill or on my noble friend Lady Hamwee’s two attempts, but it illustrates that there is widespread support for the cause. I also thank all those NGOs and their staff who have given such valuable briefing and who work tirelessly to bring families together, in particular: the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council—I specifically namecheck Jon Featonby, who has moved from the former to the latter—Safe Passage, Refugee Action and, indeed, the whole Families Together coalition. And there are others that I do not have time to mention.

The reasons that motivate them, me and others in the House are both humanitarian and practical. It is both compassionate and hard-headed, not least for the taxpayer, that refugees have the best possible chance to settle, thrive, integrate and stand on their own feet. That means, among other things, having their family with them instead of being distracted by terrible worry about what is happening to their loved ones. The case for easing refugee family reunion is not dissimilar to the case for allowing asylum seekers to work. It promotes dignity and well-being while saving the taxpayer money—a good Conservative case, as articulated repeatedly and so well by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud.

The key features of this Bill are to relax the current restrictive and inaccessible discretionary rules by allowing adult dependent children to join family in the UK, to allow siblings to sponsor a brother or sister, to permit lone children to regroup with family and to allow legal aid to be claimed for the process. The Government claim that allowing more people to come on safe and legal routes would increase demand for the criminal services of smugglers. This makes no sense to me or to other supporters of an expansion of safe routes such as family reunion. The vast majority of those who make dangerous journeys have no choice. Indeed, the number of family reunion visas issued in the year to September 2022 was 36% down on 2019, so safe routes are being constricted. There is, rightly, a generous definition of “family” for Ukrainian refugees—much more generous than for other refugees—and we do not see them crossing the Channel in small boats. There has to be a connection.

The Government are planning yet more new legislation. If they want to treat even more harshly those who arrive irregularly, they should also allow better safe routes and incorporate the provisions of this Bill into their own new Bill.

My Lords, I speak very briefly to congratulate the noble Baroness and those who have worked with her on getting this far with the Bill. I just draw to the attention of the House that the Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee of your Lordships’ House, led admirably by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will in a few weeks’ time be producing a detailed report in relation to family migration rules more generally, including, of course, the content of this Bill. I hope that it will help with the debate in the other place and that people will take very seriously both the content of this Private Member’s Bill and the findings of the Select Committee.

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness on taking this Private Member’s Bill through the House—that is no mean feat in itself—and I wish the Bill well in the other place.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for her remarks and thank all those who contributed in previous debates on the Bill. The Government’s policy already 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. Our family reunion policy allows those recognised as refugees or granted humanitarian protection in the United Kingdom to sponsor their immediate family members to join them here, if the family union was formed before their refugee sponsor fled their country of origin. This has seen more than 43,700 individuals reunited with their refugee family members since 2015. This is a significant number, which highlights the policy’s success as a safe and legal route for families to reunite in this country.

I remind noble Lords that this Government fully support the principle of family unity and share the concern 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 already set out in the Immigration Rules and in our refugee family reunion policy, which negates the need for the Bill and is the reason why the Government do not support it.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for replying. I am obviously disappointed but not surprised that the Government do not support the Bill, but I am afraid I must dissent from his assertion that the Government fully support the principle of family unity, because that really is not translated into policy and practice. Yes, he cites the number of family reunion visas since 2015, but it is difficult and in some cases costly and long-winded to obtain one, and it is unjustifiable to put all these barriers in the way. The rules are unreasonably restrictive and would be much improved with the Bill, so I live in hope that, one day, this or another Government will see the light and understand that it is not just compassion but hard-headed realism and cost-effectiveness that drive the reasoning of the Bill and other suggestions for improved, easier family reunion.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.