Lord Rosser (Lab)
I too extend my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on her Bill and her powerful contribution in speaking to it. She reminded us that it is timely in the light of events in Afghanistan, which she and others have said have led to families being separated, including children.
The noble Baroness addressed a number of points and I certainly cannot refer to them all, but she made a comment about the provision that the Government usually refer to on exceptional cases. However, as we all know, by definition, that when you say “exceptional cases” they are few and far between and very limited, and certainly do not address the issue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and many others also referred to the argument, which will no doubt be trotted out again today, about unaccompanied child refugees being sent over to settle here purely to be able to sponsor family members to come and join them. There is no evidence to substantiate that argument and I wait to see whether it will be brought it out again today in the Government’s response. My noble friend Lord Dubs addressed the Government’s claim that you must claim asylum in the first safe country reached. Like him, I wonder whether that one will be mentioned again today, incorrect though it is.
I will refer to specific points made in other contributions. I think my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said that she would like to hear one convincing argument as to why one should object to the provisions in the Bill on legal aid for family reunion applications. If I understood her correctly, I can say only that I too will wait to hear one convincing argument as to why the provisions in the Bill on legal aid are unacceptable.
My noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port made a powerful speech that has been commented on by other noble Lords and which will not be quickly forgotten.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, let us know that the Refugee Council meets in Alf Dubs House—I take it that is not literally his house but the name of the building. As he said, it is a very fitting tribute to all the work that my noble friend has done over a great many years.
As we know, this Bill would change the present Immigration Rules to allow unaccompanied child refugees who settle here to sponsor family members to come and join them. It would allow a parent settled here to sponsor dependent children over the age of 18 up to the age of 25, and, as we have heard, it would amend existing provisions to allow legal aid for family reunion applications. The Bill is about the family, and particularly children, in the asylum and refugee system, and bringing families torn apart together again at a time of great stress, uncertainty, fear and difficulty. That stress, uncertainty, fear and difficulty have arisen from war, violence and persecution, the threat and reality of murder and rape, having to flee home and country to find safety and sanctuary elsewhere, and facing exploitation, trafficking and abuse on the way. In the process, the family gets split up at a time when family relationships and support are needed more than ever—and not least by children.
The current system, the rules and how they are applied, does not bring refugee families together again in far too many cases. Previously, the argument has been advanced that going down the road of this Bill would act as a pull factor, encouraging greater numbers to come, but the provisions of the Bill can be exercised only by those who have already met all the criteria for being refugees who have shown that they have fled persecution or conflict, and it is simply about the ability in those cases to reunite with their family.
The current arrangements, making family reunion difficult, if not impossible, in that situation, encourage trafficking, its dangers and exploitation—which surely we all want brought to an end. If there are no safe and legal routes to achieve family reunion, in many cases people will use illegal and dangerous routes out of a sense of desperation that there is no alternative.
When there is real hardship and hurt for families that have been torn apart and not reunited, they should not be made to suffer even more, so that their continuing separation will deter others, when there is no evidence that that will happen, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said. Other countries have similar provisions to this Bill in respect of children and family reunion, and it does not appear to act as a major pull factor for them. We know, too, that if we do not have effective legal family reunion settlement routes, that is when we get people falling into the hands of traffickers. But, above that, surely we should be working to keep families together, particularly at their time of greatest need and strain, as in the case of refugees, when the strength that family relationships bring is more vital and crucial than ever, particularly to children.
I hope that in their response, the Government will take a rather more positive stance towards the Bill, which we support, than they have when similar Bills and proposals have been discussed previously. This Government have given a commitment to accept potentially up to 3 million people from Hong Kong, should they decide they need to get out of Hong Kong and come to this country. So, particularly in the light of the situation in Afghanistan, it would seem odd if the Government now raised objections to this Bill, which addresses specific issues on family reunion, on the basis of any unsubstantiated argument that appears at heart to be related simply to numbers. Like all other noble Lords, I now await the Government’s response.