Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have signed up to speak and the Minister; I suspect they were all hoping to have started the Recess by now. I tabled this QSD because I was so dissatisfied with the answer that the Minister gave on 15 June during questions on a Statement. In essence, I asked the question posed today, and the answer I received was that the Minister
“made clear in the other place that no unaccompanied asylum-seeking child will be sent to Rwanda, and I am sure I repeated it in this House.”—[Official Report, 15/6/22; col. 1597.]
No doubt she did, but that was not the point of the question.
I know it is government policy not to send unaccompanied children to Rwanda and that is welcome, although your Lordships’ House made clear during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act its view that responsibility for anyone claiming asylum in this country should not be “offshored” in that way, particularly now that it has become clear that they will be given a one-way ticket regardless of whether they are subsequently granted refugee status.
The point of the question was to draw to the Minister’s attention the real concerns among members of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium of over 60 organisations that the commitment not to remove unaccompanied children is already being undermined because some of these children are being wrongly assessed as adults. Those concerns are reinforced by today’s highly critical report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration on the processing of boat arrivals, which states:
“The treatment of those claiming to be children was not child-centred … The age assessment process was perfunctory and engagement with the young people was minimal.”
My concerns are all the greater given the forthcoming changes to age assessment, which I will not pursue now but were also rejected by your Lordships’ House. As was made clear during our debates, age assessment is not easy. Many children arrive without documentation of their birth date, for totally legitimate reasons, and it is widely recognised that physical appearance is not a reliable indicator of age. Nevertheless, an initial Home Office decision will be based on an individual’s “appearance and demeanour”. Where that gives rise to suspicion, one of two courses of action are currently taken. Under the first, the individual is treated as a child whose age is disputed and they are referred to a local authority for further assessment. According to a recent Written Answer, during the first quarter of this year, of 255 age disputes resolved, half concluded that the person was a child. Under the second course of action, if their
“physical appearance/demeanour very strongly suggests that they are significantly over 18”,
the individual is treated as an adult and moved straight to adult accommodation or detention—but there are no statistics for how many are so treated and no monitoring of the consequences. Why are these data not kept? Will the Minister look into the possibility of doing so?
Some data have been collected by the Helen Bamber Foundation from local authorities on those referred to children’s services because of staff doubts over their adult status, having first been sent to adult accommodation/detention between January and March of this year. Of the 211 in 64 authorities for whom they got information, two-thirds were found to be children, meaning that in just three months nearly 150 children could have been at risk of wrongful removal. The chief inspector cites Refugee Council statistics which show that in all but six of 106 resolved cases of young people deemed to be over 25 on arrival, they were subsequently found to be children.
On Report I cited the tragic example of Alex, who had killed himself and whose inquest concluded that his wrongful assessment as an adult and his subsequent ill treatment contributed to the “destructive spiral” that led to his death, even though the error was rectified. It is argued by Ministers that the wrongful treatment of adults as children has safeguarding implications, but this example illustrates the serious safeguarding implications of treating children as adults. Those consequences will be considerably more serious if they are removed to Rwanda as adults.
The Home Office has reassured critics that:
“Everyone considered for relocations to Rwanda will be screened and have access to legal advice”
and that there are adequate safeguards to ensure that children are not subject to inadmissibility procedures, but that was contradicted by oral evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee by Asylum Aid, the Refugee Council and Medical Justice. In their experience, recent arrivals to the UK are being detained without any screening for vulnerabilities. To quote the director of Asylum Aid:
“While detained, isolated, frightened and overwhelmed, they often do not understand what is happening to them”.
They are told that they may be sent to Rwanda and have only seven days in which to access legal advice and respond to the many complex questions that arise in such cases. The notice of intent, the inadmissibility notice and the information pack do not even set out that unaccompanied children should not be sent to Rwanda. Why is that the case? Will the Minister undertake to ensure that, as a minimum, those documents contain that information?
Without prejudice to its opposition to the Rwanda scheme as a whole, the consortium makes four recommendations with regard to children as follows. First, no one who claims to be a child but is being treated as an adult by the Home Office should be issued with a removal notice until confirmation is received from their legal representative that they have not been, or will not be, referred to a local authority. Secondly, in any case of an age dispute, where a person has been assessed as an adult by a local authority or the new National Age Assessment Board, the Home Office should not initiate or continue with the inadmissibility process until the time limit for challenging the decision via judicial review or appeal has passed, or the challenge or appeal has been heard and decided. Thirdly, where a person has been issued a notice of intent but is then subsequently accepted into children’s services as a child, the Home Office should confirm that their asylum claim will be deemed admissible. The process to be followed should be published. Finally, as I argued earlier, those claiming to be children who are assessed as adults at the outset should be identified in the statistics and what happens to them monitored.
The Government rightly accept the principle that no unaccompanied child should be removed to Rwanda. Let us try to put ourselves in the shoes of a child who has made a difficult journey to the UK, often having faced trauma in their home country or during the journey, and who now believes they have reached safety. What must if feel like to be told that they are now to be forwarded, alongside adults, to a country they know nothing about, like a parcel stamped “no return to sender”. We are given some insight by testimony from a Refugee Council worker who has been working with two children initially detained as adults. That worker writes:
“They were very worried these kids. Very, very depressed, very emotional, lack of energy, lack of sleep. They just didn’t know what would happen to them, all they were thinking about was Rwanda … They are so frightened. The first one I saw, he just locked himself in his room … He was shocked. He said the experience was worse than travelling to the UK”.
Pretty sobering, my Lords. Perhaps the Home Office will dismiss such observations as just anecdotes but, as the Home Affairs Select Committee, which raised a number of concerns about age assessment in this week’s report, observed:
“Specific instances may illustrate systemic issues”.
From all I have read and heard, I fear we are talking about systemic issues. If the Government believe that no unaccompanied child should be sent to Rwanda, surely it behoves them to do all in their power to ensure that this principle is not undermined in practice. I thus welcome the fact that there will be a meeting between consortium members and officials soon. Might I ask that the consortium’s recommendations be given serious consideration and that there is a real commitment to working out a way of ensuring that the Government’s own aim is achieved? Might I also ask that those who spoke in this debate today are told what practical steps will be taken as a result of this meeting? We have a bit of time now that flights have been suspended during the leadership election. Please use it constructively to ensure that unaccompanied children receive the protection promised them.