The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for tabling a discussion on the report published last year by the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee on Brexit: Refugee Protection and Asylum Policy. I start by issuing two apologies: first, that the letter to noble Lords arrived only this morning, and secondly, that a Home Office Minister is not available to appear at the Select Committee next week. I will take that second point away and see what can be done for this time next week. I am grateful to noble Lords for alerting me to that. I hope the letter proves useful. There is only one part of it where I am going to have to provide figures. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the replacement of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. The breakdown of the numbers is not in the letter, but I will try to provide that breakdown, if I can.
I thank the members of the committee for their very thoughtful contributions this afternoon and for the work they have done in producing this report. It made a number of conclusions and recommendations, and I will look at each in turn. The noble Lords, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Lord Roberts of Llandudno, my noble friend Lady Warsi, and other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—I think—made the important point about how we treat those who need our refuge being a reflection on us as a nation. I agree with that. The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, talked about the Ugandan Asians and how we gave them our refuge all those years ago. He also asked me for the published figures on 319X, which I am afraid I do not have. I agree with the committee’s principle that the way that we treat others is a reflection of ourselves.
The committee calls on the Government to offer public reassurances that they have no intention of curtailing the rights and protections afforded to refugees in the UK after Brexit. I can be quite clear from the outset, and I have said this before: this Government will continue to provide protection to refugees in the UK in accordance with the 1951 refugee convention. We will continue to support refugee resettlement and integration in the UK now that we have left the EU and after the end of the transition period—to answer all noble Lords who have made that point.
The report stated that
“it is vital that refugees and asylum seekers are considered in any agreement on the future UK-EU relationship.”
Notwithstanding the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, the UK has made a genuine and sincere offer on asylum and migration co-operation with the EU. While I do not intend to comment on negotiations, as they are ongoing, the Government have always been clear that our offer is in the interests of both the UK and EU, although I note that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is shaking his head. The issue is of the utmost importance to the UK and a core part of the UK’s whole-of-route approach to migration.
The report notes the Government’s position not to participate in burden-sharing measures, although comments that it would be in the UK’s interests to do so. That does not align with this Government’s view. Rather, we are of the opinion that a redistribution mechanism is likely to further increase flows to Europe, continuing the risk of more and more people making dangerous journeys. For these reasons, the UK is unwilling to participate in a voluntary relocation programme and, as such, we would not expect the future EU-UK relationship to be underpinned by such a proposal.
Now that the UK has left the EU, at the end of the transition period the UK will also cease to be party to the Dublin III regulation. The committee commented that Dublin represents a more desirable and realistic foundation for the future UK-EU asylum relationship than new agreements. However, the Government do not intend to replicate Dublin; instead, we are seeking an ambitious new partnership on asylum and illegal migration. Dublin is an EU law and it is right that, as an independent, sovereign country, we form our own arrangements at the end of the transition period. The UK will no longer be subject to EU directives or part of the common European asylum system at the end of the transition period. This includes having our own standards on asylum procedures and reception arrangements. The UK already has high standards for how we operate our asylum system, and we will continue to be a world leader in this area.
The report comments that human rights considerations must be at the heart of any future agreements with third countries on readmissions and illegal migration, and the Government agree wholeheartedly. That is why all returns cases are considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account relevant case law and country conditions, based on evidence from a wide range of sources, including human rights organisations. We regularly monitor and review the situation in countries of origin, working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We will continue to uphold our obligation of non-refoulement under the refugee convention, by which we will continue to be bound.
The Government have proposed that the EU and UK enter into a comprehensive readmissions agreement. This would allow for the return of EU, UK and third-country nationals who have entered the UK directly from an EU country, and vice versa. The UK’s preference is to agree a readmissions agreement with the EU, but this is a two-way negotiation so the outcome will also depend on EU co-operation. The Government have also presented a genuine and sincere offer to the EU for a new, reciprocal arrangement for the family reunion of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the EU with family members in the UK, where it is in the child’s best interests, and for children in the UK with family in the EU in equivalent circumstances, once the UK ceases participating in the Dublin regulation at the end of the transition period.
On 19 May, we published a draft legal text as a constructive contribution to negotiations. We have tabled a draft legal text for a negotiated agreement for a state-to-state referral and transfer system which would provide clear and consistent processes between the UK and EU member states, ensuring appropriate support for the child, and guaranteeing reciprocity. These guarantees cannot be provided for in UK domestic provisions alone. Even though the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, presses me to, I cannot provide a running commentary on this but, on that point about Eurodac, we are very keen to reach an agreement on biometric data sharing, for very obvious reasons.
The committee commented that it is imperative that the right to reunion for refugee families should not be restricted after we are no longer part of Dublin. The UK already provides safe and legal routes to bring families together through its refugee family reunion policy and under the family provisions in Part 8 and Appendix FM of the Immigration Rules. These routes are not affected by the UK’s exit from the EU. There is no intention to negotiate new arrangements to replace the family reunion provisions of the Dublin regulation for adults and accompanied children at this time, as we believe our domestic family reunion provisions offer sufficient family reunion routes. We recognise that families can become separated because of the nature of conflict and persecution, and the speed and manner in which people are often forced to flee their country. The Government’s family reunion policy allows those granted family reunion status or humanitarian protection in the United Kingdom to sponsor their pre-flight partner and minor children to join them here. To half-answer the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I say that the Home Office has granted over 29,000 family reunion visas under the refugee family reunion Immigration Rules over the last five years, more than half of which were issued to children. But I shall endeavour to get her figures for the last 10 years.
The report also recommends that the definition of family members eligible for reunion should be expanded to include adult children. I should point out that there are separate provisions in the rules to allow extended family to sponsor children to come here when there are serious and compelling circumstances. Where an application fails under the Immigration Rules, we consider whether there are exceptional circumstances or compassionate reasons to justify granting leave to enter or remain in the UK, outside of the Immigration Rules. We have published guidance which aims to provide advice on the types of cases that might benefit from this discretion, including young adult sons or daughters who are dependent on family here and living in dangerous situations. Refugees can also sponsor adult dependent relatives living overseas to join them when, due to age, illness or disability, that person requires long-term personal care that can be provided only by relatives in the UK.
The committee supports the campaign to expand refugee family reunion to include children being able to sponsor parents. The noble Lords, Lord Ricketts and Lord Jay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, made that point, among others. On this matter, noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that we are quite clear and have repeatedly made clear the Government’s concern that allowing refugee children in the UK to sponsor parents would create further incentives for more children to be encouraged, or even forced, to leave their family to make that journey to the UK to sponsor relatives, in the manner that my noble friend Lord Blencathra points out. They often have hazardous journeys in the substandard vessels that we have seen so often on the television. Our view is that this plays into the hands of criminal gangs, which exploit vulnerable people, and that goes against our safeguarding responsibilities. Meanwhile, the UK will continue to participate in the Dublin III regulation throughout the transition period, including the family reunion provisions. Just to clarify for the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, I say that children do not apply under Dublin; it is a state-to-state transfer referral system.
Under the Immigration, Nationality and Asylum (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 there is a saving provision to explicitly ensure that any Dublin family reunion cases that have entered the system prior to the end of the transition period will continue to be processed beyond that date. The noble Lords, Lord Jay and Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, all made that point. I note that the committee was not satisfied that these regulations would provide sufficient protection against disruption to family reunion routes and suggested a temporary extension of current arrangements. As I have made clear, the UK will be leaving the Dublin regulation at the end of the transition period. It is right that, as an independent, sovereign nation, we are no longer bound by EU regulation. The saving provision offers certainty that those cases that entered the system prior to the end of the transition period will continue to be processed.
Continuing with unaccompanied children, the committee expressed its disappointment that the Government did not establish a guardianship service in England and Wales for all unaccompanied migrant children. In response to the report’s concern about unaccompanied children, I stress that the Home Office takes its responsibility for the welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children extremely seriously. Comprehensive statutory and policy safeguards and arrangements are already in place for supporting children through the asylum process and ensuring that their best interests are a primary consideration in every decision taken in respect of them.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, asked about the number of children in detention. I am pretty certain that figure is nought and that that stopped some time ago, but I will double-check and write to him if it is any different.
I differ with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on local authorities not supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. All unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are looked after by local authorities, which are their corporate parents. They have a statutory duty to ensure that they safeguard and promote their welfare. Under these arrangements, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are provided with access to support and services in line with other looked-after children in that local authority’s care.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked why not all local authorities participated in the resettlement schemes. That is responded to in the letter. We cannot force local authorities to participate in these schemes, but I am very pleased to say that more than 320 have. We are very grateful to them for all the children they have taken and who they care for.
To take the point from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, children are allocated a social worker, who will assess their needs and draw up a care plan, which sets out how the authority intends to respond to the full range of the child’s needs, including their immigration status. In addition to this support from local authorities, legal advice is available to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from legal representatives.
In England, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are referred to the Refugee Council’s children’s advice project, which provides independent advice and assistance to help the child in their interaction with the Home Office and other central and local government agencies. We believe these comprehensive arrangements already provide unaccompanied children with the necessary specialist advice and support that they need.
To speak to the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in acknowledgment of the likely increased support needs of trafficked children, in July 2018 the Government reaffirmed their commitment to the full national rollout of independent child trafficking guardians across England and Wales. These people are an additional source of advice and support for all trafficked children, irrespective of nationality, and someone who can advocate on their behalf. One-third of all local authorities in England and Wales are now covered by this provision.
The committee urged the Government to provide regular updates on progress of the Dubs scheme. I know that noble Lords are aware that the Government have successfully delivered this commitment and in July we announced that we had completed the transfer of all 480 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from Greece, France and Italy under the scheme.
My noble friend Lady Warsi and the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, asked me about our future commitments. We have a long and established history of providing refuge to those who need it. We will continue to uphold that tradition in the manner we have historically done. In recent years, the UK has received a significant number of asylum claims from unaccompanied children. In the year ending December 2019, the UK received 3,775 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That was more than any EU member state and accounted for over 20% of all asylum claims from unaccompanied children across the EU and the UK. This follows previous years that have seen similarly high numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in the UK—3,254 in 2015, 3,290 in 2016, and 2,401 in 2017. In the future we will consider unaccompanied asylum-seeking children’s asylum applications here, as well as prioritising helping children in dangerous countries, rather than in safe EU countries, through our resettlement scheme. I cannot remember who made this point, but our future system will consider vulnerability from a global perspective.
On the Moria camp and the Lesbos fire, noble Lords will have heard in our discussions on the immigration Bill the other day what I had outlined since 22 April. We have taken children and there were flights on 11 May, 28 July and 6 August. We are exploring what more we can do to this end.
I have just been told that my time is almost up. There are quite a lot of other things to cover. I will cover one more thing—the future UK resettlement scheme and the single global refugee resettlement scheme—and then I will stop. The Government will issue an updated policy statement, which will be published ahead of the UK resettlement scheme launch, once we have met our commitment to resettle 20,000 vulnerable refugees through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. As noble Lords said, it is right that we continue to offer legal and safe routes to the UK for vulnerable refugees in need of protection, for whom resettlement is the only durable solution.
I apologise that I have run out of time, but I will, as I did I think yesterday, follow up in writing to noble Lords.