All 2 Baroness Williams of Trafford contributions to the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL] 2017-19

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Fri 15th Dec 2017
Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Fri 11th May 2018
Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Home Office

Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL]

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 15th December 2017

(6 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL] 2017-19 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for raising this very important issue, which we oft discuss in your Lordships’ House, and noble Lords for the many thoughtful and passionate contributions to the debate. I think it would be useful if I state up front, particularly in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and my noble friend Lord Cormack, that I totally agree that immigration—and I say this as an immigrant—has enriched the UK, particularly for refugees who have made the UK their home.

Since 2010, we have granted more than 100,000 refugees permanent residence in the UK. In the year ending September 2017, almost 9,000 children found shelter, security and safety in the UK—49,000 since 2010—and we are committed to resettling up to 3,000 vulnerable children, together with their families, from the Middle East and north Africa region, and 20,000 vulnerable refugees by 2020, around half of whom will be children. Those are the facts to date. In comparing ourselves with the EU, I think we can stand proud because in 2016 the UK resettled more refugees—adults and children—than any other EU member state, and more than a third of all resettlement to the EU was to the UK. We are a welcoming country and we remain a welcoming country.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked how many visas have been issued outside of the Immigration Rules in family reunion cases since we published the new guidance. I can give him the figures for 2015 and 2016. In 2015 we issued 21 visas outside the Immigration Rules. In 2016 we issued 49. Up to September 2017 we have issued 49. Whether there are exceptional circumstances depends very much on the facts of each case but may include, for example, an adult dependent son or daughter living in a conflict zone or a dangerous situation with no other relatives to support them. Since we published the guidance in July 2016, entry clearance officers have referred an increased number of applicants for a grant of leave outside of the rules. These have included children aged over 18 from various countries, such as Syria, Iraq and Sudan, who are not living an independent life and who applied as part of a family unit.

My noble friend Lord Cormack made the important point that we must not turn inwards. Britain has always been an outward-looking country and we will remain so on leaving the European Union. We will continue to uphold our international obligations and welcome refugees to our shores, as we have done throughout history, as my noble friend pointed out.

I have listened to concerns for those separated from family members by conflict or oppression. No one could fail to be moved by the thought of close family living in conflict zones or dangerous situations. That is why this Government strongly support the principle of family unity and we already have a comprehensive framework for family members of refugees to be reunited here. This is set out in the Immigration Rules and our family reunion policy, rather than primary legislation. This policy has seen more than 24,000 partners and children reunited with their refugee family members in the past five years. There are rules already in place for extended family of refugees in the UK to sponsor children where there are serious and compelling circumstances, and for British citizens to bring family here so that there is no need for children, in particular, to make illegal and dangerous journeys to get to the UK, as many noble Lords have acknowledged.

The noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Kerr, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Hamwee, talked about the pull factor and the Government not having evidence of that. I absolutely accept that there are push factors but it is important that we do not create further incentives for asylum seekers to choose to come here illegally rather than claim asylum in the first country that they reach. It is important to note that the push factor of civil war or persecution is the deciding factor in whether or not an individual flees their country, but we must do all that we can to support those in need of protection to claim asylum in the first safe country to avoid these dangerous secondary movements.

We know that changes in policy impact on asylum seekers’ choices with regard to those secondary movements. In 2015, Germany, for example, saw its asylum intake increase by 155%. More than 20% of people who sought asylum in Germany in 2015 were from countries in the Balkans, which thankfully have not seen conflict for more than 20 years.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about our no longer funding DNA tests for family children. There is no requirement to provide DNA evidence or any other type of evidence, because we recognise that documentary evidence may not always be available, particularly in countries where there is no functioning administrative authority. We have improved our guidance to highlight the challenges that applicants may face in this regard.

Noble Lords highlighted the fact that the family reunion rules provide only for immediate family members, but our policy caters for extended family living in precarious and dangerous circumstances. There is provision to grant visas outside the rules—I have given those figures to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser—in exceptional cases and published guidance for caseworkers makes that clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about former refugees being unable to sponsor family members under family reunion. Most refugees will complete six years’ leave to remain before they can apply for British citizenship and they can sponsor their family members at any point during those six years. But there is also provision in the family rules for British citizens with exceptional circumstances. I can write to him further about this if he wishes.

I must be clear that the rules will remain in place after our exit from the European Union. Some have sought to argue that so-called family reunification under Dublin may no longer be available post Brexit. However, Dublin does not confer immigration status simply because an individual has a family member in the UK; it is a mechanism for deciding the member state responsible for considering an asylum claim. Those transferred under Dublin may need to leave if they are found not to need protection. Our family reunion rules will continue to enable immediate family members to reunite safely with their loved ones in the UK, regardless of which country those family members are in. In addition, those recognised by UNHCR as refugees may be able to join close family members here in the UK through our mandate resettlement scheme. Individuals are referred to UK Visas and Immigration by UNHCR where resettlement to the UK is deemed appropriate. We need to ensure that existing schemes are used to full effect to benefit family members living in regions of conflict. For this, we must rely on UNHCR referring more people for resettlement under these schemes.

I can assure your Lordships that we are listening to concerns about family reunion and discussing with NGOs how we can make improvements as part of our wider asylum and resettlement strategy. Our starting point, however, is that family reunion is a matter for Immigration Rules and policy rather than primary legislation. I believe that those rules already cater for certain types of cases that noble Lords are concerned about, although I agree entirely that we need to ensure that the policy is delivered in practice.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to Immigration Rule 319X regarding unaccompanied children. I assure her that we are looking at that rule and whether improvements can be made. Home Office officials are discussing this with the NGOs, including organisations such as UNICEF.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said that our policy is perverse and out of step with the rest of Europe vis-à-vis children. Our family reunion policy meets our international obligations and allows thousands of refugees to be reunited with their immediate families. We regularly review family reunion policies in other member states and note that some are seeking to impose more stringent requirements. I have already laid out some of the figures, but it is important that our system does not encourage asylum seekers who have reached a safe country to choose to move elsewhere. We must avoid illegal migration from safe countries, which undermines our efforts to help those most in need.

The noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Dubs, talked about reinstating legal aid in family reunion cases. We are committed to providing clear guidance and application forms to support customers through the family reunion process. Again, we are working closely with key partners such as the Red Cross and UNICEF to further improve the process for considering family reunion applications, so that people understand what is expected of them and to ensure that policy works in practice. 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 claim asylum.

Our focus remains on those who need protection and those fleeing conflict. I am of course aware of the importance to those recognised as refugees in the UK of having their family join them here to support their integration. That is why our policy allows immediate family to come here, whether they need protection in their own right or not. More importantly, this Government’s significant resettlement commitments are designed to keep families together. It is worth reflecting on the contribution that the Government have made to support those fleeing conflict and oppression. I laid out some of the figures earlier, but we have expanded our resettlement commitments to resettle more than 23,000 people by 2020. In addition, we have committed £2.46 billion of humanitarian aid in response to the Syrian conflict.

In conclusion, we already have a comprehensive framework to provide safe and legal routes for family to reunite here. Instead of primary legislation, we must ensure that our existing family reunion policy is delivered in practice. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made that point right at the outset. This includes granting visas outside the rules in exceptional circumstances and using our resettlement schemes to full effect, so that we help those who need it most. I thank the noble Baroness once again and ask her to continue to work with the Government to see whether there are any other ways in which we can build on the existing family reunion policy and process, without the need for primary legislation.

Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL]

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 11th May 2018

(6 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL] 2017-19 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 12(a) Amendment for Committee (PDF, 44KB) - (17 Jan 2018)
Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I rise to make clear that I do not support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. Though I like and respect the noble Lord very much, I cannot support him in his amendment today. I very much support the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who set out very carefully and clearly why the amendment should be resisted, as did all other noble Lords who have spoken, including my noble friends Lady Lister of Burtersett and Lord Dubs.

I would understand the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, a bit more if this Bill were saying that any refugee granted status to stay in this country could bring family members to the UK, but it does not say that at all. It says that they may make an application. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, will assure the House that when somebody makes an application to the Home Office, there are some very robust procedures in place. It is not a free for all. I am sure that she will tell the House that, as she will be very well aware of what you have to go through to get an application to enter this country. We discuss matters about the House Office almost every week in this House, and sometimes many times a day. We do not normally say that it is a free for all at the Home Office and that it is far too lenient; we often say quite the contrary about how it operates and can sometimes be very frustrated about the environment at the Home Office, which we think can sometimes be a bit harsh in how it deals with people. I am sure that the Minister will mention more on that.

I also very much agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, who talked about migrants. I am very well aware that the Minister is a migrant herself; she came from Ireland as a child. I am the eldest son of a migrant; my parents also came from Ireland to find work here. I am sure that we would find that many others here are the children or grandchildren of migrants. Migrants have made a very great contribution to our country. They have done wonderful things here and made our country a much better place. I therefore do not support the amendment today, and I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it in due course.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her continued, insistent interest and support for changes to the family reunion immigration rules and I reassure noble Lords that I have listened, and will continue to listen, to the many thoughtful and very compassionate contributions that we hear in this House every day. I would also like to acknowledge the work of the NGOs whose support of the proposed changes have provided valuable insight and constructive challenge on this issue. It should go without saying, but I will repeat it because it is a crucial point: individuals and communities—which of course includes refugees—who have made their home here over generations have always been and will continue to be welcome. They provide an invaluable contribution to our social, cultural and economic life.

It is worth briefly reflecting on how much this Government have done, particularly in the region, but also here at home, to help refugees from countries such as Syria. We are on track to resettle 20,000 refugees from Syria and a further 3,000 children and families from the wider MENA region. We have also committed £2.46 billion of humanitarian aid to the Syrian conflict. I also want to provide some context. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Lister, said that we have had few grants of leave outside of the rules. If I go back to 2016, after listening to concerns about how the provisions for leave outside the rules operated, we introduced changes to clarify our guidance. This now makes clear that the policy will apply to adult dependent sons or daughters aged over 18 living in conflict zones. Around 65 visas for leave outside of the rules have been granted over the last three years. We are working to ensure that this policy works as well as possible in practice. In 2010, the UK resettled around 750 recognised refugees. Last year alone, we provided 6,000 people with protection under our resettlement schemes, around half of whom were children. These are the most vulnerable families, who have been safely and securely resettled and supported in rebuilding their lives. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and other noble Lords said, these are human beings and not numbers.

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Baroness Hussein-Ece Portrait Baroness Hussein-Ece (LD)
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I have been listening carefully. Is the Minister aware that Germany has admitted 1 million Syrian refugees and has just passed legislation very similar to that put before us today by my noble friend Lady Hamwee? Crime there has gone down, unemployment has gone right down and its economy is booming. How does the Minister respond to that?

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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I recognise totally what the noble Baroness says and what Germany has done. It has caused problems in Germany, and what the Government of the time decided to do has caused integration challenges. But I recognise exactly what the noble Baroness says. I have not mentioned crime or unemployment today; I was simply talking about infrastructure such as public services. I was not going there and I would not want to. I know that the noble Baroness is a very compassionate person indeed.

I have lost my place. I was talking about the extended family reunion rights for British citizens. I will now move on to another point, which I have also lost. I am very glad that the noble Lord is about to intervene.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark
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The Minister said a moment ago that the Bill would allow many thousands of people to come to the country, but all it does is to allow them to make an application. There is quite a distinction between those two things. Perhaps she could confirm that.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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The noble Lord is absolutely right, and I also said that it is difficult to estimate. Of course people could make applications, but they would be doing so under the legislation we have passed. However, I made the point that it is quite difficult to get exact numbers.

I recognise the potential implications of the Bill highlighted by the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Marlesford, which would seek to limit the number of family members that could be granted leave under the Bill to a maximum of two. It is a recognition of the wider impacts the Bill may have. As I think every noble Lord mentioned, it could have a divisive effect on families and on the people in the position of having to make those awful decisions. While the current provisions are more narrowly defined in terms of family members who may qualify, this is not limited to a specific number of individuals. I think that is why noble Lords probably took issue with my noble friend’s amendment. This clearly demonstrates the complexities around this issue and why it requires careful consideration, which is what the Government are doing.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford talked about the Home Office being corrupt, which is quite a strong allegation. He then moved on to the capacity of the Home Office—what has the Home Office done to improve vetting and recruitment procedures? The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, helpfully pointed out that for anyone to get through the Home Office procedures involves a very rigorous process, which is why I am at this Dispatch Box so much, now almost every day of the week, including Friday. As regards vetting in the Home Office, it follows the Cabinet Office vetting process, which is standard across Whitehall. All Home Office staff are bound to adhere to the Civil Service Code, and the Home Office is determined to uphold the highest standards for our staff.

We have all seen the tragic consequences for people, and particularly the terrible sight of unaccompanied children who take dangerous journeys, most likely in the hands of traffickers. While I fully commend its intention, the Bill is likely to place in danger an increased number of those people it seeks to protect. I have not mentioned the P word, because I do not want to dismay the noble Baroness or the noble Lord, but I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise the point I am making. Rather than refugees seeking protection in the first safe country they reach, the Bill creates a perverse incentive for them to make perilous journeys to the UK in the hope of subsequently bringing their family here. We must ensure that we do not put more children in harm’s way, and we are doing this already through resettlement of children and their families direct from the region. We know that policy changes can and do have an impact—

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Portrait Lord Kerr of Kinlochard
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The Minister got just too close to mentioning the unmentionable. Is it really plausible that, say in Idlib, if it is under siege in six weeks’ time, the family sits around the dining table, pick a child and tell it that it must set off across the battle lines and the Mediterranean, to try to get into England so that it can then pull the family into England? That is implausible. We are talking about refugee reunion and about children. We really must stop talking about this wildly implausible pull factor. They come here to escape being killed; they do not come here in order to become a magnet for the rest of the family.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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I do not dispute a word of what the noble Lord says—that people’s intention in coming here is to flee the terrible things happening in their countries. I am saying that we have all seen the horrible pictures of children who have made these journeys and have either died or got themselves into terrible danger on the way. We talk about this often.

Baroness Sheehan Portrait Baroness Sheehan
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Is the Minister aware that the independent inquiry of the Human Trafficking Foundation in July last year found exactly the reverse of what she said? It found that the fewer safe and legal routes there are to process asylum seekers and refugees, the more power the smugglers have.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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I am slightly confused by what the noble Baroness is saying. I do not think that anyone would dispute that a child sent across the Mediterranean is very vulnerable to traffickers. I will give an example of what I mean by that. Immediately following the recent UK-France Sandhurst summit and the press reports suggesting a further transfer of minors to the UK, the number of children arriving in Calais more than doubled, from 59 to 137. There is no disputing that children who travel alone like that are in danger from all sorts of unintended consequences of our wanting to give them support and refuge. Although civil war or persecution is the absolute deciding factor in whether an individual flees their country, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, it does not explain the decisions made in undertaking dangerous secondary movements.

This Government have invested significantly in supporting the most vulnerable refugees through our resettlement programmes. These are safe and legal routes to protection and are designed to keep families together without the need for migrants to embark on dangerous journeys or to put their children in the hands of criminals who exploit them. We should not create potentially perverse incentives outside of those schemes, as this Bill proposes.

Nor must we lose sight of how the family reunion policy fits within wider asylum and resettlement work. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in his place, because that includes implementing Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016. The Government have committed to the transfer of 480 unaccompanied children from Europe to the UK under Section 67. Over 220 children are already here and transfers are ongoing. This is in addition to current commitments under the Dublin regulation. Work continues with member states and relevant partners to ensure that children with qualifying family in the UK can be transferred quickly and safely to have their asylum claim determined in the UK.

There has been much debate about what will happen after we leave the EU if the family reunification provisions under the Dublin regulation are no longer available. Retaining the family reunification provisions of the Dublin regulation post EU exit was the subject of the recent amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I state again that the Dublin regulation does not confer immigration status; it is a mechanism for deciding the member state responsible for considering an asylum claim. Anyone transferred under the Dublin regulation will be expected to leave the UK if they are found not to need protection. The family reunion rules will continue to enable immediate family members to reunite safely with their loved ones in the UK, regardless of the country in which those family members are based.

Finally, the Bill makes provision for legal aid to be reinstated for family reunion cases. The Government are currently undertaking a comprehensive review of legal aid reforms, including an assessment of the changes to the scope of legal aid for immigration cases. The review will report later this year. It is important that we do not introduce legislation that pre-empts the outcome of that review, which needs to run its course.

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Earl of Listowel Portrait The Earl of Listowel
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My Lords, again before the noble Lord responds, is it not right to pay tribute to the caseworkers? This debate has highlighted the immense challenges they face in making their judgments. Does the Minister not agree that it is right for us to pay great tribute to their work? Can she assure the Committee that, when she looks at capacity in the Home Office, she will ensure that those caseworkers get all the emotional support and time they need to reflect on their work so that it does not overburden them, perhaps contributing to the poor outcomes from casework that we occasionally see?

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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My Lords, the Home Office often comes in for negative comments, so it is always nice to hear noble Lords pay tribute to the dedicated staff who work tirelessly for the right reasons and for the right outcomes for the people who apply. I look forward to the analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

Lord Marlesford Portrait Lord Marlesford
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I think we all agree that underlying the Bill are the humane intentions which we all support. Every example given was fully valid and I support them all. However, the fact remains that the Bill removes from the Home Office the powers and opportunities to control the total number of people who come into the country. I have indicated that I have a pretty low opinion of the Home Office’s capacity in this respect, but the right reverend Prelate put his finger on this point, which I mentioned in my speech: the only ground on which an application can be stopped by the Secretary of State is that of national security.

As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, applications are available, but if there is no government check—the Bill explicitly and deliberately removes the government check—and if the Government do not have the ability to make the final decision, which of course is subject to every sort of lobbying and debate and all the rest of it, you are abrogating the overall control of immigration which I believe the people of this country would always insist upon. That is the fundamental error of the Bill.

My amendment was merely intended to draw attention to this and to reduce the possible number. I have said already that I thought 100,000 would probably be too many to be allowed in, but the Government must take on more clearly a policy on how many people and in what circumstances because I am by no means sure. The Government have always said that they want the brightest and the best, and that must be right for the country. None the less, there are strong humanitarian arguments for individual refugees to be able to be reunited in this country with their families. But it is about the way in which that is done and the avoidance of it being sidetracked by those with less creditable motives. It is important that we safeguard against that, and the only people who can do so are the Government and the Home Secretary.

There is a deep flaw in the Bill, but, equally, it has been worth while, and I hope that this has been a worthwhile debate. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.