HL Deb 01 July 1993 vol 547 cc935-43

3.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments and reasons be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons amendments and reasons be now considered.—(Ear/ Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.





[ Page and line references are to Bill (56) as first printed by the Lords]


1 Before Clause 3, insert the following new clause: Young unaccompanied asylum seekers (".—(I) The Secretary of State shall by order establish an advisory panel for the purpose of making advice available to a child who has arrived in the United Kingdom unaccompanied by an adult person capable of looking after him. (2) The members of such advisory panel shall be appointed from time to time in accordance with the provisions of section (Appointment and functions of advisory panel) below and shall have the functions therein described. (3) A member of such advisory panel is referred to as an asylum-seeker's adviser. (4) Where a child unaccompanied by an adult person capable of looking after him arrives in the United Kingdom and is, or appears to an immigration officer to be, under the age of 18 years and such child has made, or may reasonably be considered as desiring to make, a claim for asylum, the immigration officer shall notify the advisory panel with a view to the child being forthwith referred to an appropriate asylum-seeker's adviser for the purpose of carrying out the functions described in section (Appointment and functions of advisory panel) below.") 2 Before Clause 3, insert the following new clause: Appointment and functions of advisory panel (".—(1) The Secretary of State, after consultation, if thought fit, with the Refugee Council and any other statutory or voluntary body which he considers appropriate, shall from time to time appoint such persons as he thinks fit to be members of the advisory panel and every such appointment shall be made upon such terms and conditions in all respects as the Secretary of State shall determine. (2) The Secretary of State may from time to time revocably delegate to the Refugee Council or other appropriate statutory or voluntary body all or any of his duties under subsection (1) above. (3) The advisory panel shall so far as practicable include persons who—

  1. (a) are, or can call upon persons who are, able to converse in the several languages likely to be spoken by young unaccompanied asylum-seekers;
  2. (b) are familiar with the habits and customs of the territories from which such young asylum-seekers are likely to come; and
  3. (c) have knowledge of child-care legislation and immigration procedures.
(4) An officer or employee of the immigration service shall not be eligible for appointment to the advisory panel. (5) It shall be the function of an asylum-seeker's adviser, to whom a young asylum-seeker has been referred, to befriend and advise the asylum-seeker in all matters relating to immigration, accommodation, education, health and general welfare for so long and to such an extent as the adviser shall from time to time consider desirable; and in performing such function the adviser shall have regard to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the young asylum-seeker (considered in the light of his age and understanding). (6) Nothing in this section (Young unaccompanied asylum-seekers) above affects the powers of duties of local authorities under the Children Act 1989 or otherwise.")

The Commons disagreed to these amendments for the following reason: 2A Because they involve a charge on the public revenue and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that the above reason may be deemed sufficient.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 2A.

The reason which was given by another place for disagreeing with Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 is that they involve a charge on the public revenue. In a sense that is a formality. The Government understand, respect and share the concern to protect the welfare of unaccompanied child asylum seekers which prompted the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, to introduce these amendments.

Our real concern is that the creation of a statutory panel, with a duty to appoint an adviser for every unaccompanied child, may not be the best way of protecting the interests of this group of children. We therefore propose to meet the spirit and the purpose of the proposals in the amendments in what we believe will be a more practical and flexible way. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the understanding and helpful part which he has played in the discussions on this matter.

The Home Office has agreed to fund the Refugee Council to enable it to establish and administer a non-statutory panel of advisers. The advisers would be volunteers from the communities from which most unaccompanied children come. They will be specifically chosen for their suitability for this role and they will be given the necessary training.

When an unaccompanied child arrives in this country and claims asylum, or when he or she applies to the Home Office for asylum after entering the country, the immigration officer or the Home Office will notify both the appropriate social services department which has the statutory duty of protecting the child's welfare and the administrator of the new panel, who will offer the services of an adviser to the social services department wherever that is considered to be appropriate and in the best interests of the child.

The function of the adviser will be principally to ensure that the social services department is aware of the child's wishes and of any cultural considerations which might be relevant, and to ensure that the child understands, so far as is possible in view of his or her age, what is happening and what choices he or she may have.

The decision by my department to fund the Refugee Council so that it can set up that panel has of necessity to be for one year in the first instance. But I can assure your Lordships that that does not indicate any lack of enthusiasm for the project on the Government's part. The fact is that public expenditure decisions have to be taken on an annual basis.

We cannot commit ourselves to a specific level of support in future years. No government department can do that on any subject. But we certainly intend to give the scheme sufficient support to enable it to have a full and fair opportunity to prove its worth. I hope, therefore, that noble Lords will appreciate that, by inviting your Lordships not to insist upon the amendments which were agreed at Report, I am nevertheless giving an undertaking to carry out the intention of the amendment that the Government will meet the spirit and the intention of these amendments but will do so by non-statutory means.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 2A.—(Earl Ferrers.)

Lord Brightman

My Lords, the Government have rejected the statutory scheme for helping unaccompanied child refugees which a large majority of your Lordships wish to see in place. However, the Government are committed to a non-statutory scheme which has the same end in view. I am grateful to the Government for accepting that commitment.

At the foot of page 50 of the Hansard report of the other place, the Government referred to that commitment as a practical administrative measure which will deliver "precisely the same service" as my amendment sought. Those words are important. They show that the Government are undertaking to put in place exactly what this House wishes to see in place. The only difference is that the framework within which the scheme will operate will be a commitment or undertaking and not a statute.

Speaking for myself, I am content with that situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who placed her name to my amendment, desires me to apologise for her absence from the Chamber. She authorises me to say that she entirely agrees with my approach. I am also grateful to the Government for the seven additional initiatives (which are detailed on pages 30 and 31 of the Hansard report) taken by the Government to relieve the plight of unaccompanied children. These initiatives were not spelt out in my amendment and I regard them as a welcome bonus.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches recognise that the Government have gone a certain way towards accommodating the wishes of your Lordships' House in the Bill that passed through this Chamber. But they have given only half a loaf and not the whole bread that we would much prefer to have.

There are a number of issues that we cannot find entirely satisfactory. We cannot believe that a non-statutory scheme gives an adequate safeguard or that the use of volunteers is an appropriate way to deal with a very important service. It is admittedly a service to only a small number of children but for them it is very important. A non-statutory scheme does not seem to give the same kind of security as would have been offered by the measure passed in your Lordships' House.

We also note that funding is for only one year. The Minister said that that was inevitable. There is always an annual review. It would be nice to be encouraged to think that the Government intend the service to go on. The need for it undoubtedly will go on. It is also very doubtful whether volunteers will be able fully to carry out the duties required. We are told that training will be given. The question arises as to what kind of training and how thorough it will be. Those people will be dealing with children, many of whom will be very distressed and confused as to the position in which they find themselves. The children will need well-informed and skilled help if they are to be able to get through satisfactorily the very difficult position in which they find themselves.

I should like also to ask the noble Earl about returning children when they are denied the right of entry into this country. Do they also have to go back to the country to which they first went after they left the country from which they are fleeing, because fleeing is what it will be? If so, what provision will be made for the welfare of those children? We have discussed the matter on previous occasions in connection with refugees in general. But what happens when an unaccompanied child has to go back? For example, there was the case in which someone had passed through France on the way from his own country and had to wait at Calais for the ferry. It was then deemed that France was the country to which that person should be returned. The thought of an unaccompanied child who has been rejected from this country being returned to a country which in no conceivable sense is its country must cause serious anxiety.

These were matters which were raised at the time. The decision has gone some way but I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, that this is a satisfactory alternative to the measure put forward by your Lordships' House.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we supported these amendments when they were moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, at Report stage. The Minister will be aware that the vote that took place was not an ambush. There was no element of surprise. The vote reflected by a considerable majority the strong feeling in all parts of the Chamber for additional protection for young, unaccompanied children arriving in this country.

The noble and learned Lord was good enough to show me his correspondence with Ministers. I agree with him that the Ministers concerned have been anxious to find a way around the problem without bringing in a statutory requirement. However, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that in some ways that is still unsatisfactory. First, we had the unqualified statement by Ministers and the noble Earl today that there is no way in which a government can commit themselves to expenditure for more than one year. The Minister knows better than I do that there are all sorts of ways in which a government, if they want to, can commit themselves to expenditure for more than one year. That has never caused any practical problem if there has been a will to do so. The impermanence of the funding to the Refugee Council is and must be a cause for anxiety.

The second difficulty concerns the issue of reliance on volunteers, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, referred. The anxieties expressed in the debates when the Bill was going through this House indicate that, if a single case arises where the volunteer fails to turn up—they cannot be compelled to turn up—and that results in a child being sent back to a dangerous destination. whether or not it is the point of origin, there will he an explosion not only in this House but throughout the country. Those anxieties are not theoretical; they are based on practical cases which were rehearsed at considerable length in your Lordships' Chamber. We must accept that efforts have been made to meet the point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. But we cannot accept that the right solution to the problem has been found.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in his reservations in regard to the use of volunteers. Dealing with children who have suffered a traumatic experience on arriving unaccompanied in this country as refugees seeking asylum is not a matter which can be handled adequately by a volunteer telephoned at short notice. It requires great skill and understanding. The effect on the child of incompetence—though no doubt the person in question acted with the best will in the world—may be extremely serious.

I cannot understand how the Government can possibly defend this penny-pinching and mean-minded policy towards children in traumatic circumstances who are seeking the protection of this country. I plead with them to consider that the consequences of their actions may be extremely serious. A small sum of money, estimated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, at around £64,000 a year, is all that would be required to give an adequate service to deal with this real and human problem.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I wish to make one or two points on the issues raised. First, I should stress that there is one great advantage in the new scheme, on the assumption that it works in the way outlined by my noble friend. If the adviser comes from the Refugee Council, he will he in a much stronger position in his relationship with the child to establish himself as the child's friend than if he were a government or statutory employee.

There is a greater risk in the scheme not working than there would be if it were a statutory scheme. But I suggest that we should try it and monitor it, which I am sure the Refugee Council will do, to ensure that it is working. I believe that there could be added strengths to the scheme, provided it goes on year by year and provided that it works in practice. I can see that a statutory scheme may not always work in practice for the reasons outlined by some speakers—a person may not turn up, whether he is a volunteer or appointed by statute. But if the scheme is assisted and run by the Refugee Council as though it were a statutory scheme, and it obtains the right volunteers who will be trained and therefore well equipped to do the work, then I would warmly welcome it. It is important that the new scheme is monitored thoroughly to ensure that it works in practice on the ground.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, in answering the points raised, will the noble Earl confirm the sum of money referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter? Are we allowing these children to be placed in a position of jeopardy for the sum of £64,000?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Brentford for the views he put forward, which encapsulate what the Government are trying to do. We are trying to meet the spirit of the amendment which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, moved persuasively and effectively and which your Lordships wish to see incorporated in the Bill. The only difference is that one is a statutory scheme and the other is a non-statutory scheme.

There are advantages in the scheme being non-statutory. One of the disadvantages of a statutory scheme—as was pointed out at the time the amendment went through your Lordships' Chamber—is that it confuses where the ultimate responsibility for a child lies—whether it lies with the adviser or with the social services. Under the non-statutory scheme there is no question of where the responsibility lies; it lies with the social services.

The noble Baroness said that that is only half a loaf. I thought that that comment was a bit mean and penny-pinching because we have given a great deal. We have tried to meet the spirit of the amendment. It referred only to children who came into this country at ports of arrival, whereas the non-statutory scheme will apply also to those children who are already in this country and who appear at the Home Office seeking asylum.

Under the statutory panel, an adviser had to be provided for each child. Under the new scheme a statutory adviser will be appointed only where that is considered necessary by both the adviser and the social services who are responsible for the child. Hillingdon, which houses Heathrow, has a great deal of experience in dealing with those children. It would be inappropriate to say that each new applicant had to have a special adviser. Where the requirements are that an adviser is necessary, one will be appointed.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, flew off—if I may say so—and accused the Government of being penny-pinching and mean and would not even approve of the payment of £64,000 for those children. That story was rehearsed by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. The Government are not being mean. We are spending £100,000—the amount being given to the Refugee Council in order to set up the panel. It is not a question of being mean or penny pinching.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, tried to take me to task for saying that it would be for only a year. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, was concerned about that also. I made it perfectly clear that no government can commit themselves for more than a year. But we certainly intend to give the scheme sufficient support to enable it to have a full and fair opportunity to prove its worth. That is as generous an undertaking as one can give.

My noble friend Lord Brentford said that we should try the scheme and monitor it. I can assure him that that is exactly what we shall do. We shall monitor it extremely carefully.

The noble Baroness was concerned about advisers. They will be volunteers; but of course they were going to be volunteers under the statutory scheme. They will be trained for this purpose and that will be the responsibility of the council to decide.

The noble Baroness also referred to returning children to other countries. I accept the noble Baroness's implication and that of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, that when children come into this country in that kind of state of course they have to be dealt with with great care. That is our desire. That is what the social services do now. If we get the advisers incorporated too, that should go further to protect their position. One could not rule out the possibility of ever returning children to their country or to third countries, but I can give the firm commitment that this will happen only after a very full consideration of each case on its merits. If that were to happen we would have to satisfy ourselves that there would be proper and satisfactory reception arrangements in another country.

I hope therefore that your Lordships will realise that by not accepting the amendment another place has nevertheless undertaken to fulfil the requirements of and the sentiments behind the amendment. I hope that I have persuaded your Lordships that this will be the case. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, he made a statement in his closing speech that the statutory scheme would also have consisted of volunteers. I have looked back at the amendments and there are indeed specifications about the qualifications of the advisory panel proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, and the provision that officers or employees of the Immigration Service shall not be eligible. But there is no statement in the amendments that the advisory panel would consist of volunteers. I cannot recall any suggestion in debate that that should be the case. I wonder whether the Minister would care to reconsider that statement.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, as I understand the position, the panel would have been drawn up and they would have been an unpaid panel. The noble Lord shakes his head. I understand that it would have been an unpaid panel and that probably the chairman would have been paid and the other people would have been paid expenses. So far as I am aware there is no difference in what we are suggesting other than that of the statutory panel.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, before my noble friend finally sits down, would he like to join with what many of us feel should be congratulations to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, on achieving this quite considerable improvement in our social provision which, as your Lordships will recall, originated with his efforts? Would he also say that the noble and learned Lord and your Lordships' House have both performed a very useful function?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree wholly with my noble friend. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, raised a point of considerable importance. It was one which had the acceptance and the approval of the House and it is one which the Government have taken on board and have undertaken to fulfil in the sentiments in which it was required. The only difference is whether it should be in a statutory form as opposed to a non-statutory form. Apart from the fact that another place has required it to be in a non-statutory form, I actually think that a non-statutory form is better because it has far more flexibility, far less rigidity and does not blur the areas of responsibility. But the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, and indeed your Lordships' House as a whole have done a great service to this batch of people who can suffer difficult problems when they come to this country in those circumstances.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


3 Clause 10, page 7, line 35, at end insert: ("(3AA) The Secretary of State shall appoint a person, not being an officer of his, to monitor, in such manner as the Secretary of State may determine, refusals of entry clearance in cases where there is, by virtue of subsection (3A) above, no right of appeal; and the person so appointed shall make an annual report on the discharge of his functions to the Secretary of State who shall lay a copy of it before each House of Parliament." ")

The Commons agreed to this amendment with the following amendment: 3A Line 8, at end insert: '(3AB) The Secretary of State may pay to a person appointed under subsection (3AA) above such fees and allowances as he may with the approval of the Treasury determine.'.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 3A to Lords Amendment No. 3.

Your Lordships will remember that the House approved an amendment at Third Reading in the name of my noble friend Lady Flather which requires my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to appoint an independent person to conduct a periodic monitoring of refused entry clearance applications. The amendment simply provides the necessary authority for the payment of fees and expenses for that person.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 3A to Lords Amendment No. 3 —(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.


4 Clause 16, page 10, line 2, at end insert: ("(2) Nothing in this Act shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds, or vary the amount or incidence of or otherwise alter any such charge in any manner, or affect the assessment, levying, administration or application of any money raised by any such charge.")

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason: 4A Because it is unnecessary.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 4 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 4A.

Amendment No. 4 provided that nothing in the Act should involve a charge on public funds. I understand that its insertion in the Bill, when the Bill was last before your Lordships' House, was an error. I moved the amendment. I was in error. I apologise to your Lordships.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 4 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 4A.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.