Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2018 include a £39 increase in the fee for registering children entitled to British citizenship, given that only £372 of the proposed £1,012 fee is attributable to administrative costs; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to withdraw the fee increase until they have (1) published a children’s best interests impact assessment of the fee level, and (2) established an independent review of fees for registering children as British citizens, in the light of the report of the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement (HL Paper 118) (SI 2018/330).
My Lords, this is the first time I have moved a regret Motion, and I do so because of my concern for an estimated 120,000 highly vulnerable children. These are children who are not automatically British because of their parents’ status, despite being born in the UK or having lived here most of their lives, but who nevertheless have rights to register, or in some cases to apply to register, as British citizens, subject only to a good character test from the age of 10. However, because of the exorbitant registration fee levied, many of them do not do so and can then find themselves effectively treated as immigrants, at risk of removal, even when born in this country.
The Motion itself is very modest. Having pointed out that only £372—less than two-fifths—of the new fee is attributable to administrative costs, it calls for two things. First, it calls for a children’s best interests impact assessment of the fee level. A freedom of information request has elicited that such an assessment has never been carried out, even though, since 2009, Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act requires the Home Office to ensure that children’s best interests are given primary consideration in all decisions that affect them. Secondly, it calls for an independent review of fees for registering children as British citizens. This should cover not just the level but the recommendations of the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, of which I was a member. These concern situations where the fee might be waived—or, better still, I suggest, no fee should be charged at all: I should emphasise that so far the Home Secretary has not introduced any waivers or exemptions for these cases—and the appropriate age from which to apply for the good character test.
I readily acknowledge that the power to levy a fee above the administrative cost was introduced by Labour, but for some years the problems it was creating went unnoticed, rather in the way that the mounting problems faced by the Windrush generation went largely unnoticed. However, the fee is much higher now and has increased by 51% just since 2014. Thanks to the work of Solange Valdez-Symonds, who established the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens—the Project, for short—supported by a small, dedicated group of volunteer lawyers and later joined by Amnesty, there is now no excuse for ignoring the injustice being caused. I pay tribute to their commitment and tenacity and thank them, as well as Coram and Let Us Learn, for their help with this Motion.
The Project and Amnesty first drew my attention to the issue during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016. I and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, raised it in the middle of the night with, I think, only the Minister there to hear us. The response from the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was unusually hard-line for him, and no one took much notice. But in the past year, the issue has begun to surface. Last July, Synod passed a unanimous motion on the level of citizenship fees, and in December there was a demonstration of children, supported by Citizens UK, protesting against the fee level and pointing out that it is considerably higher than the equivalent in other EU countries. The Mayor of London raised concerns in his strategy for social integration and has more recently spoken out on the issue, and our Select Committee could,
“see no ground for the Home Office charging more than the costs they incur”,
and questioned the application of the fee to children in care or who have spent their entire life in the UK.
An Early Day Motion, tabled last month, calls for the fee to be reduced to no more than the cost of processing, and for various exemptions and waivers. Its co-sponsors include a Conservative and a DUP MP, and, at his first appearance before the Home Affairs Committee, the new Home Secretary was questioned closely more than once on the issue. I am pleased to see that the shadow Home Secretary has now committed my party to reducing the fee. It has now been taken up by the media, which, quite rightly, are making the link to the Windrush scandal. Although this is a different group, there is a remarkably clear parallel, because, like the Windrush generation, these children face a possible denial of social and economic rights, and even removal, because they lack necessary documentation. Yet—this cannot be repeated too frequently—those born here are children with a clear legal right to be registered as citizens.
When I last raised this issue in your Lordships’ House, the Government’s response revolved around two main arguments. First, they argued that the level of the fee was and continues to be justified on the grounds of the Home Office’s commitment to a self-funded border, immigration and citizenship system, so as to minimise the burden on the taxpayer, who, it was argued, should not have to pay for the benefit falling to those who make the application. That might be fair enough when we are talking about adult immigrants applying for what amounts to the benefits accruing from naturalisation, which is not a clear right. However, in the case of children born here, some of whom are stateless, this is about registration of a pre-existing statutory entitlement. In what way does that constitute a benefit? Do we think of our citizenship as a benefit? As it is, children entitled to register as citizens are in effect being asked to subsidise the immigration system. How can that be fair? When I tell people what the fee is—over £1,000—and that nearly three-fifths of it is in effect profit to be recycled in the immigration system, they are shocked.
The other main argument is that citizenship is not really that important—that it is not necessary in order for a person to exercise his or her rights in the UK—yet the guidance on the form on which children register as British states:
“Becoming a British citizen is a significant life event”.
Apart from allowing a child to apply for a British passport, British citizenship gives them the opportunity to participate more fully in the life of their local community as they grow up. Let Us Learn, a youth-led campaign group, writes:
“Our hopes for the future lie here”—
yet it cannot afford to ensure that those hopes are securely realised.
It is not just the positives that registration of citizens can bring; there are also the serious negatives that it prevents. In particular, without proof of citizenship young people can find it impossible to enter higher education because they are treated as overseas students, with higher fees, and they are unable to access student financial support. They could even end up being denied access to healthcare, housing or a job as, undocumented, they become victims of a hostile/compliant environment policy. Most seriously, they risk removal, particularly once they are over 18. According to the Project and Amnesty, the Home Office not only can but does exercise its powers to remove from the UK children not registered as British. It has exercised this power in cases where it is fully aware of a child’s entitlement to British citizenship and the fact that the child is unable to register because of the fee. This is truly shocking.
The Project does what it can to help children register, often with the help of charitable support. One example it gave me was of Nathan, who was born in the UK. He was 10 years old with a statutory right to British citizenship when he was referred to the Project by the No Recourse to Public Funds team at the local authority. He was facing removal from the UK with his family, who could not afford the fee. Because of the concern that he would be removed, his local church community and a generous member of the public together paid it. If they had not, he would have been removed from the UK—the country in which he had spent all his life and where he was entitled to citizenship—to a place he neither knew nor had ever been to. It cannot be right that a child must rely on charity and good will to exercise a basic right to citizenship.
Underlying much of what Ministers say is a fundamental failure or refusal to understand that registration is not about immigration control but about the citizenship of children, many of whom are fully entitled to be so registered. However, where they are unable to exercise the right to apply for registration because of the fee or, in some cases, a lack of knowledge, they face the prospect of being drawn into the immigration control system. They then face the same kind of hostile or compliant environment difficulties that faced the undocumented Windrush generation. Indeed, Coram has described them as the “future Windrush kids”. As Sonia Sodha argued in the Guardian recently, this,
“should be as big a scandal as the treatment of the Windrush generation”.
Even as they promise to right these terrible wrongs—much too slowly, I fear, according to Saturday’s Guardian—the Government are knowingly and consciously creating the next generation of Windrushers, and they do not care. I am giving the Government an opportunity to show this evening that they do care. I was encouraged that, when pressed by the Home Affairs Committee, the Home Secretary conceded that the Home Office needs to get the “right balance” between funding its work and what he described as,
“a huge amount of money to ask children to pay for citizenship”.
I repeat: a huge amount of money. He accepted that it is right at some point to take a fresh look at fees and said that,
“it is something that I will get around to”.
That is the first sign of movement on the part of the Home Office and, as such, it is welcome—but to “get around” to something suggests a distinct lack of urgency. I understand the pressures that the Home Office is under at present, but this issue has been festering for some time now, and the longer the delay, the greater the likelihood of some children losing their rights or even being wrongly removed.
My Motion calls for an independent review. This should not be a major piece of work requiring much time. In his recent statement on the SI enacting the Windrush scheme, the Home Secretary underlined that it is also fundamentally important that the lessons from that episode are learned for the future so that it never happens again. As I have argued, it already is happening again. Acceptance of the spirit of this Motion through a clear and firm commitment to act swiftly would send out an important message that the Government are learning and are willing to act on lessons learned before any more children are turned into Windrush kids. I beg to move.
My Lords, with her usual combination of conviction and eloquence, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has rightly returned to a policy which, as she said, we both contested in 2016 at the Committee stage of the Immigration Bill and again on Report. She has done so with her customary forensic skills and I am in agreement with the arguments that she has put forward. She was also right to pay tribute to Let Us Learn and Coram. I was struck by one of the cases that they drew to my attention—that of Regina, a 22 year-old woman who has lived in the United Kingdom all her life. They say:
“She was taken into the care of the local authority as a child. Despite repeatedly asking the local authority for her documents, and several commitments from them that they would assist her in applying for her British nationality, she left care with no citizenship, or any form of immigration status. She is now homeless, and unable to find the fee to secure her rights. The only fee waiver available is for an application for time-limited leave to remain and without any proof of her status, Regina cannot work, or rent a property. She is pregnant, and desperately needs documentary proof to prevent her being charged for health-care. Without further action, her child will also be born without citizenship, or a right to stay in the UK”.
That is why this regret Motion is so important. It is about this generation but, as the noble Baroness said, it is about future generations as well.
Two years ago, on 21 March at the Report stage of the Immigration Bill, I mentioned that the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and I had been in correspondence about the fees required for a child to be registered as a British citizen. Along with the noble Baroness, I argued that Amendment 145A, which bears the attention and interest of noble Lords who might like to know the background to this evening’s debate, would have prevented the Secretary of State using the money of these child applicants for profit. The only matter to which he could have had regard would have been the cost of processing the application.
The amendment also provided that fee regulations—the matter before your Lordships’ House tonight—would have required fees to be waived where a child was in care or otherwise assisted by a local authority, and it provided for discretion to waive the fees in other cases on the grounds of the means of the child, his or her parents or his or her carers. The amendment, of course, was not accepted by the Government, although some of the arguments clearly struck a chord.
In our correspondence and in debate, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, referred to the importance of children in the care of local authorities having their status regularised and registered. This was no doubt because of the importance that the Home Office—and, I dare say, all of us—attached to drawing a clear line between those who are here legally and those who are not. But this was also bound up with the so-called hostile environment, referred to by the noble Baroness, a doctrine promulgated by Amber Rudd and others.
As the noble Baroness and I argued two years ago, the then fee of £936, as of 18 March 2016, was the reason why undesirable non-registration had occurred. As I said then, in many cases, the reason why no registration had taken place was precisely because of the size of the fee. Where the child and/or the parents cannot afford to pay, or the local authority will not pay, this money is simply beyond their means. I pointed out that the cost of registration in 2016 was calculated by the Home Office at £272, having risen from £223 in 2015—that is £272, compared with a charge of £936, which is an indefensible discrepancy. There is an old adage that it is the profit that makes things so expensive. Profit may not, in many circumstances, be a dirty word, but profiteering by government on the backs of vulnerable children is a stain that brings no credit on any of us.
That was 2016: let us fast-forward to 2018. We now have a new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. On 15 May, he said that the fee—now up from £936 to £1,012—is a “huge amount of money” to ask children to pay for citizenship. He is right. Let us look once again at the discrepancy between the now £372 attributable to administrative costs and the £1,012 taken by the Home Office. Yes, it is a “huge amount”. As for Amber Rudd’s “hostile environment” policy, Mr Javid says he will review it in the wake of the Windrush scandal, to which the noble Baroness referred in her remarks. He says he regards the phrase as,
“a negative term, a non-British term”,
and that there were lessons to be learned from the controversy. He has said that he wants to replace the term “hostile environment” with the term “compliant environment”, which distinguishes between illegal and legal immigrants. Speaking to the BBC, he said:
“I am going to look at how it’s being implemented. I want to review aspects of the policy. I’ve already made some changes”.
The noble Baroness’s Motion, which calls—modestly, as she said—for the fee increase to be withdrawn until the Government have published an impact statement and established an independent review, gives Mr Javid the opportunity to make another change and to do so right away. Failure to do so, and, as things stand, means that many children with a statutory entitlement to British citizenship will continue to be excluded because of what Mr Javid says is a “huge amount of money ” to ask children to pay. Incidentally, some of these children have no memory of any country other than this. Like yesterday’s Windrush children, they simply assume that they are as British as their school friends. What a cruelty it is when they discover they are not and that they do not have the resources to do anything about it.
In 1981, I was a Member of the House of Commons and I participated in proceedings on the British Nationality Act. It was always Parliament’s intention, and that of the Government of the day, to entrench the concept and reality of citizenship. It was never the intention that the Home Office should impede or prevent full integration of children by levying prohibitive fees. That Act recognised that some children would be born here and grow up here without parents who were themselves British. The law categorically states that they,
“shall be entitled to be registered as a British citizen”.
In other circumstances, the Act also retained the discretion from the British Nationality Act 1948 enabling the Home Secretary to register a child as British where, for instance, parents have become estranged or deceased and status is problematic.
The 1983 fee for registration was £35. Today, as I have said, it is £1,012. That is inflation on quite some scale. As the noble Baroness said, the opportunity to make a profit was taken in 2007 and the fees have risen inexorably since then. This statutory right was never supposed to have been about income generation or supporting Home Office officials. We are talking here about British citizenship, not the National Lottery or a nice little earner on the side. The argument put forward by the Home Office, that a child can apply for leave to remain instead of citizenship, is flaccid and insulting. That is not what Parliament intended and it is not a tenable substitute.
In 2016, the Minister said that the money needed to go into the general pot to,
“achieve a self-funded border, immigration and citizenship system by 2019-20”.
He asked why resident taxpayers should,
“be the ones who have to pay”.
He went on to say:
“Citizenship can never be an absolute right, nor is it necessary in order for a person to reside in the UK and access our public services”.—[Official Report, 21/3/16; cols. 2217-18.]
But this is like Don Quixote inviting us to tilt at imaginary windmills. These children should not be categorised in the first place as migrants: children born here are not migrants. For them to be used to subsidise the UK immigration system is an affront and an injustice.
The opportunistic conflation of adult naturalisation and children’s registration is not what the law intended. Worse, it makes us derelict in our duties under the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and our duty to protect children’s best interests. Some would argue that we are technically in breach of the letter of the convention; it is certainly true that we are in breach of its spirit. Mr Javid should ask his officials to provide him with a copy of the convention and a copy of Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. He should ask why his officials have failed to undertake a children’s best interest assessment—as advocated by the noble Baroness tonight—before hiking up these fees yet again. Officials should be asked how they justify the conflation of vulnerable British children with adults from overseas seeking citizenship and how they square this with the charter obligations that this Government have affirmed.
The noble Baroness is right to have tabled this Motion tonight, and I hope that Mr Javid’s promise of change will lead to a rapid change in this policy.
My Lords, I was not originally going to take part in this debate, but as a former Immigration Minister it seemed to me that it was worth looking carefully at the regret Motion. Indeed, having listened to the introduction of the noble Baroness, there are one or two things that ought to be put on the record with regard to the history of this.
I know that these matters, particularly those that deal with children, produce a lot of emotion and concern, as they rightly should. But of course we have to go back. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, just mentioned the British Nationality Act 1981 and other legislation which has been passed from, in fact, 1948 onwards. That reflects on the fact that, as the noble Baroness said, the benefits of British citizenship should not be overstated—or at least she said something similar to that. The fact of the matter is that none of us who are British citizens really prizes our citizenship as much as we ought.
That does not mean that it has to be used as an excuse to look at the value of citizenship against the fees that are charged, but I would point out that when I was the Minister, the Treasury was always on my back, wanting me to produce value for money in anything that my department did. Of course, this was confirmed, as the noble Baroness has admitted, by the Labour Government in 2004, which introduced the term “over-cost”, as it was called, and applied it from 2007 onwards. This related to fees in a vast number of areas across a vast number of departments. Because of pressure from the Treasury and indeed from outside of government, the idea was to try to make sure that the costs of departments that were involved in matters such as immigration were, as far as possible, covered to minimise the amount of extra moneys that would be required from the public. That is perhaps rather more surprising under a Labour Government than it might be under the normal Conservative prospectus, but there it was and there it has been ever since. The fees have been rising commensurately ever since in a great many areas.
I am not here to defend those facts except to say to noble Lords that I am delighted to know that the Government are at least now looking at the issues of complexity, which is the other point I wish to make. When I was doing things on immigration, we had a simple situation. There were few areas and qualifications with which one could remain in this country. Similarly, the application processes and the way we looked at these matters was simple as compared with the situation we now have, with different categories of rights to remain, which have been referred to, such as indefinite rights to remain and temporary rights to remain; they now exist and they are applied. In my opinion, we are much more generous, and rightly so, towards many more applicants than we used to be. In those days, we were much tougher: either you were able to remain here or you were not. However, the complexity has got out of hand. We have so many different headings and categories that, inevitably, there are going to be those, including children and perhaps some others, who will fall foul, as it were, of the regulations whatever they happen to be.
I therefore welcome the Government’s approach, which is to look at the complexity and try to simplify these matters. Bearing in mind what may well be happening after next year, it will be necessary for us to have a new approach to how we deal with citizens who are closer to this place than normal—Europe. All of this gives us an excellent opportunity to try to simplify the system. However, I fear that while the regret Motion has been put before us today, we are in a situation where the fee structures in this department and in others is to some extent controlled. Moreover, as has rightly been said, the discretions of Ministers in being able to help are somewhat limited, although they do exist in certain cases. I would certainly urge that, in those cases of particular suffering or particular poverty or particular circumstances, Ministers should exercise what powers they have in favour of child applicants.
My Lords, I rise to support the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and thank her for bringing this regret Motion to your Lordships’ House. She has drawn our attention to the iniquity of the Government’s position, which would add insult to injury by seeking to increase the fee for registering children entitled to British citizenship and thus increase the Government’s profit.
As we have heard, the figure of more than £1,000 per child that is being demanded is, according to the Government’s own figures, comprised of £372 in administration fees with the remaining £640 being pure profit: profit, including even on the backs of children in care. According to the current Home Secretary, it is a “huge amount of money” to ask children to pay for citizenship, a comment he made just a few weeks ago. I agree with him, and he has the power to do something about it. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, pointed out that he does have vestiges of power that remain.
The Home Secretary has come close to recognising that the imposition of the fee is part and parcel of the wish of the previous Home Secretary but one—perhaps Amber Rudd also, but certainly Theresa May—to create a “hostile environment” in this country for—but this is where I come unstuck. Who precisely is the hostile environment aimed at? We are told that it is to deter illegal immigrants, but the events of the last few weeks have shown us that innocent people, those who have every right to be here and who believe themselves to be utterly British, are finding that they are ensnared in these pernicious rules. Without British citizenship, these children face the same issues as the Windrush generation, which have been exposed recently: being refused access to healthcare, employment, education, social assistance and housing; being held in detention centres; and potentially being removed and excluded from the country altogether.
The briefings that we have received from the Coram Children’s Legal Centre and Amnesty International tell us the human stories of the economic hardship and psychological trauma of being unable to surmount the barriers to gaining citizenship. We have heard a couple of the stories this evening; they are heartbreaking. These children have statutory rights—that cannot be stressed enough—to be registered as British citizens, conferred on them by the British Nationality Act 1981. No child should be denied their British citizenship rights by a fee. I add my support to that of others in asking for the removal of any element of the registration fee over and above the actual cost of administration, the removal of the entire fee in the case of children in local authority care and the introduction of a waiver of the fee in the case of any child who is unable to afford the administrative cost of registration.
Of course, I also support the call in the regret Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asking the Government to withdraw the fee increase until they have published a children’s best interests impact assessment and established an independent review of fees for registering children as British citizens, as recommended by the report of the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement.
My Lords, I support the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I will not go into the mathematics—which are very simple, in a way—but I invite the Minister to help us understand the Government’s role in dealing with citizenship. This is about citizenship, not immigration, although sometimes they are linked.
All of us were probably born into citizenship—that is, children become citizens in our country. Obviously, there has to be a system looking at qualification if people come here by other routes. Citizenship is the privilege that glues a country together and enables a Government to have a culture of law and order that people respect and work in and where they support each other. In a market-driven economy, the role of citizenship is even more important because the market will cover some things, but you need a lot of energy and commitment underneath to look after people, look out for them and go the extra mile. There is enormous evidence of social breakdown, including the breakdown of families and communities, isolation and alienation, one of the causes of which seems to be what I call a “citizenship deficit”—that is, many people are not public-spirited, wanting to be citizens with others and live in a joined-up way for a common good.
Noble Lords will know that church people in particular give millions of hours every month to voluntary activity to improve the life of the community. That is what citizenship is: going the extra mile. Many others do this, not just church people. People engaged in such work could give lots of examples of how the civic energy that we need to offer welfare, support, friendship and kindness to make human life more bearable is under stress more and more. We need more recruits. The challenge facing the Government is to create a culture where citizenship is good, creative and worth while.
This issue points to the giving of signals that increase the citizenship deficit. I want to tell two stories from my diocese. I could take you to a parish where an Australian family with three children who were all born here, who have lived over half their lives in this country, claim citizenship. They could afford to pay, so there was not that kind of struggle, but from knowing the family I know that they feel insulted and undervalued. They are citizens living among citizens and making contributions, but suddenly they have to find quite a lot of money to register that.
More poignantly, there is an enormously poor Nigerian family in the parish. They struggle tremendously. Their children are entitled to become citizens, but the fees are way above their possibility. Local church people work hard to try to raise the money, but it is a double whammy: the people becoming citizens feel that the state does not want people to be part of it—it has no commitment to them, so why should they commit to the state?—and all the people of good will who raised the money think, “Golly, what is happening to citizenship in our country, when it is not a right that can benefit society, but some kind of financial transaction that people struggle to meet?”.
If we are not careful, we give out a message that society is just a heap of things that have to raise money to pay the costs of things. A rich society is one in which we give ourselves to each other, generously, graciously and compassionately—that is what citizenship is about. If we cannot induct children into that culture, but give the contrary message that it is a very expensive privilege, and then you just live for yourself, or that very poor people cannot afford to be citizens despite their legal rights and their participation in communities, then I think we are contributing through this scheme to the citizenship deficit and the continuing disintegration of our society.
This is a key signal to give to people that citizenship is precious, that it counts, that it is worth while and should be welcomed. We need Governments to be generous in that direction and certainly not to make a profit by enabling people to participate in that privilege.
My Lords, in welcoming strongly what the right reverend Prelate said, does he not agree that, in the breakdown of society, what is repeatedly demonstrated is that children need to belong? There has to be a culture, an overwhelming culture, of being wanted and belonging, and if that is not there, disintegration increases. Does he not also agree that, in the kind of society he is talking about, phrases such as “hostile environment” have absolutely no place, because they generate the wrong kind of context?
I would be very happy to say that belonging is what it is about—that is what a citizen is. It is about belonging, not just to your close family but to your community, your society and your state. We want people to feel proud of that, to feel welcome and fully participative.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on bringing this regret Motion. I sit on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and, yes, this regulation did cause us concern: that is why we reported it to the House. For the Minister’s convenience, that was regulation 330. Last week, regulation 680 came before the committee with an almost identical title, dealing with fees for children and immigrants, and this one caused us even more concern: this one dealt with the waiving of fees for the Windrush generation. As my noble friend said, they came here as children. Here again, the Home Office’s uncompromising attitude towards immigrants caused a lot of disruption and difficulty for a lot of people—people legally entitled to be here but whose family settled in the UK prior to 1 January 1973, when the Immigration Act 1971 commenced.
People were not informed and only recently has Parliament become aware of these problems, and the difficulties and expense to which people have been put. The Government quickly introduced the Windrush scheme to put it right and this enabled the Home Office to waive fees for those eligible for the scheme. Yes, in this case the Home Office has apologised and rushed to put things right. Indeed, it has rushed so much that regulation 618 came into force without the normal period for people to pray against it. Indeed, the Immigration Minister wrote to your Lordships’ committee explaining the need to bring these regulations in immediately instead of waiting the usual 21 days. Your Lordships’ committee asked the Home Office how many people it anticipated would use the scheme, the cost and the end date. The answer was that it did not know.
This later regulation 618 proves that my noble friend is absolutely right to raise this question, because there was more trouble in the pipeline; trouble which, at least on this occasion, the Government have apologised for and tried to put right. The effect of having a hostile environment in the Home Office towards immigrants—presumably to get numbers down to the tens of thousands—and the damage done to innocent people will not be put right by an apology.
This policy has done the NHS an enormous amount of harm, as today’s first Oral Question illustrated perfectly, with concern expressed on all sides of the House. Only a change in policy will put it right, so I hope the Minister will carry my noble friend’s message to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister and that they will accept my noble friend’s proposal.
My Lords, I support the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I declare my interest as a trustee of Coram, which includes the Coram Children’s Legal Centre and the Migrant Children’s Project. I will give a cross-party flavour. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, would have spoken in support from the Government Benches but he is unavoidably detained, organising the wedding of his last remaining unmarried daughter. Understandably, that takes priority.
One almost feels a degree of sympathy for the Home Office at the moment. It is under enormous pressure. The Windrush scandal has been mentioned, as has the cap on skilled workers, particularly the effect on doctors. One wonders who will be next in the firing line. Some of us in this Chamber have a horrible sinking feeling that it will be children.
As has been mentioned by other noble Lords, the new Home Secretary—brave man that he is—went in front of the Home Affairs Committee on 15 May. He went so far as to agree to a memo giving a rundown on costs and how they were justified, without giving any timeframe for when that would happen. He mentioned that he found the £1,012 fee to be rather a lot and said, “I understand the issue”. Let us hope that he is beginning to understand the full complexity and awfulness of it.
As has been said, we have a fee where there is a £640 surplus over the cost of processing a child’s application. We are completely out of line with other countries. Our fee is nearly six times what it costs in Ireland, 20 times the amount it costs for a child to be registered as a citizen in Germany, and 21 times what it costs in France—not an entirely comfortable place to be.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, we think there are about 120,000 children in this country with neither citizenship nor immigration leave to enter or remain, and for many of them these fees are a huge and significant impediment. I think we all agree that that is completely unfair.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave the example of Regina. I will quickly talk about another lady, Amelia. She is 24 years old. She is a single mother. She has been living in this country since she was 12. She has one dependent child: a son aged two. She will have to pay a series of four payments—£3,066 every two and a half years—in order for her to reach settlement in the UK. She will need in due course to pay a total of £7,144 for her son to become a citizen, and a total of £9,851 for herself. She is unlikely to be able to afford legal advice, if indeed she could find it, so she may be unaware that her son is in fact entitled to British nationality under Section 1(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981. At the moment there is no legal aid available for her or her child at any stage. That is simply unacceptable and untenable.
I would like to put on the record my own deep embarrassment and shame at what has been going on recently with the Windrush scandal. I suspect I speak for many of your Lordships when I say that. That is combined with a degree of anger over what I have read about the ill treatment and lamentable maladministration that appears to have gone on. How on earth the Home Office could even imagine not grasping this slightly uncomfortable and complex nettle of how to deal with children, I cannot really understand—not least in the interests of its own self-preservation and to spare it further embarrassment, anger and shame. There is almost a sense of institutional depression, which occasionally seems to be the culture there.
I strongly support the regret Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, which has been carefully crafted to give the Home Office a “get out of further embarrassment” card. I urge the Home Office to seize the moment or regret it later.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Lister on her important regret Motion. I shall be very brief, as noble Lords have spoken eloquently and poignantly about children being sometimes cheated out of their livelihood. I want to do one thing, which is to appeal to this House’s sense of fairness and responsibility towards children. We have always had that responsibility and we have had many Bills over the last few years—longer, indeed—on issues relating to child welfare, child protection, social mobility, poverty measures, child refugees, integration into British society and so on. We have consistently been concerned for vulnerable children and vulnerable families. We have a strong record of supporting and protecting children. Can we really forget all that?
I regard this profiteering by the Home Office on all children who make nationality and immigration applications as quite extraordinary and unacceptable. We all know that young people need an affordable way of gaining permanent status and stability. They also deserve legal advice, along with legal aid for separated children and young people. As we have stated over and again, young people in our society deserve help to succeed and lead useful lives. How can a young person faced with this extraordinary situation pay this kind of money, as my noble friend and others have said, for their own security as citizens in this country, something to which they are entitled? What price the Government’s policies on social mobility and child protection? Surely this needs urgent attention.
My Lords, I will be brief and, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for instigating this debate. I want to tackle head-on something that no one else has: the facts and figures of the Home Office’s budget and the reason why it says it has to do this. When she responds, I think the Minister needs to reply to this.
The cost impact assessment says that this provision will close a £60 million gap in the Home Office’s budget. If we read the financial impact assessment, that is the primary reason why this is being done. The amount that will be raised by the issue in the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is just over £1 million of that £60 million. That comes within a total Home Office budget of £13 billion. If we take a look at the accounts for last year, we see that the Home Office underspent by £60 million. The accounts clearly show that, at the stroke of a pen today, the Home Office could write this measly figure off. It is a litmus test for this Home Office and the words that have been spoken. Is this really a new system with a humane approach or is it the system in which the Windrush generation was caught up? I say advisedly to the Minister that there is no financial reason whatever to deny these children their citizenship. There is no financial reason to increase this fee and I ask the Minister to explain financially why, at the stroke of a pen, this cannot be written off and the fee put to bed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for moving this very important Motion. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, for highlighting that there may be complexities to this and limits to what the Minister and the Secretary of State can do. I must confess that when thinking about this I feel furious. How can we as a country do this to our vulnerable children—children who have a right to be here? Why would we so foolishly make them feel unwelcome? It is absolutely shameful. There may be constraints on what the Minister can do. This morning I spoke about child health at the Royal Society of Medicine with young GPs and young paediatricians who are enthusiastic to help children in their community. They are working in Hackney and other deprived neighbourhoods. I am proud to be British, to have a health system that is free at the point of delivery and helps vulnerable families and families of all kinds, and an education system available to all. Many countries do not have such services. I am proud of that. I am deeply ashamed of this. What is the underlying message here? We do not want you here. You have a right to be here. We will begrudgingly let you be here. We are going to make as much money out of you as we can because we can get away with it—until the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, highlighted it to us.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby talked about belonging and helping people to be proud to be British, to be proud of this country and to want to be a part of it and contribute to it. I spent this afternoon with foster carers. Church groups around this country have recognised the need of the children of this country for foster carers and adoptive parents and work with their congregations to recruit more vital placements for those young people. These congregations are reaching out to the vulnerable, mostly from impoverished backgrounds, to take them into their homes.
We talked yesterday about the Serious Violence Strategy and young people feeling that they do not belong. When they do not belong, they find places where they are welcomed—gangs where they feel they have a family. Noble Lords will have followed stories of young people from this country choosing to go to Syria to fight for ISIS because they felt that was the place they belonged. Will the Minister say how this policy fits with the Government’s strategy to prevent the alienation of young people so that they may wish to be drawn towards organisations such as ISIS? It is surely in our own best interests not to be so penny-pinching and, where these children have a right, to make it as easy as possible for them to become British citizens and fully integrated members of our society. I am sure there are limitations on what the Minister can say tonight, but I hope she can assure us that every effort is being made to address this problem as speedily as possible.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness. I will add persistence to the attributes that have already been listed. As noble Lords have said, this was raised not only in the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement but at a recent Home Affairs Select Committee taking evidence from the Home Secretary. In response to one member, the Home Secretary said that the Home Office had to get the right balance between the funding of the Home Office and the fees charged. Like other noble Lords, I question whether this is a matter of balance.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, mentioned, a memo giving a rundown of the cost of these fees and how they were justified was requested. The Home Secretary responded to the comment that, on the face of it, the fees go way beyond normal cost recovery by saying that it would be a “good exercise for me” as well.
We hear many complaints and expressions of astonishment about the level of Home Office fees generally. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, that the complexity of the system is at the root of this. When the Home Office introduced its premium service some years ago, my first reaction was that, given what all applicants have to pay, they should all get a reasonably quick and reliable service. I do not think I need to expand on that. The briefings have reminded me that I have often read about a whole family being subject to fees, particularly those payable periodically over a long period. That is similar to the position of Amelia, which has been mentioned. If it is not essential to pursue the matter, for instance with naturalisation, and it is too much for the family, some members are omitted. It may be children but often it is women. I can imagine the potential problems down the line in the cases we have heard about, quite apart from the issue of these children being unable to exercise their rights.
What is at issue is not entitlement but the registration of that entitlement. The child has a statutory right to citizenship and everything that goes with it. As noble Lords have said, this is not about immigration control. On Thursday, we will be debating the difficulties that some people face when they try to pursue activities in everyday life. However, these children are not migrants and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, the leave to remain is not a substitute for citizenship, as is sometimes suggested by the Home Office. I understand that it is not necessarily available, but it is not for the Home Office to dismiss rights in this way.
In his strategy for social integration, the Mayor of London put it very bluntly, saying that,
“if a young person has the right to be a British citizen, then government should remove obstacles to them becoming one”.
He commented on the profit element, which is,
“at least ten times higher than in many other European countries”,
“preventing too many young Londoners from accessing the rights they are fully entitled to by law”.
The Project, to which the noble Baroness referred, is very telling and powerful and I will quote one short paragraph from it:
“High-cost fees are completely contrary to the promotion and process of integration. Fees act to divide, distorting the vibrant futures of us—and other young people—caught in the complex net of immigration and nationality entitlements. Fees prevent young people from working, paying tax and contributing economically to society”.
I think that meets the right reverend Prelate’s definition of citizenship. Picking up the noble Earl’s point about young people finding other families, I recently heard that one should not use the term “gang” when working with young people in gangs, because they regard the gang as their family. That needs to be recognised.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, recently reported on a remedial order following declarations of incompatibility with regard to the British Nationality Act. In that case, it was about requirements of good character. We raised potentially discriminatory provisions in British nationality law with the then Home Secretary, concluding:
“We would be grateful for an assessment and an explanation from the Home Office as to whether any such discrimination does in fact persist”,
and were pleased that the Immigration Minister responded that she would ask her officials to look at this. I cannot help thinking that charging fees in the way that we have been discussing is a form of discrimination.
I have read the Library briefing for Thursday’s debate. It refers to the work by Coram and the Children’s Society, which have reported that there are 144,000 undocumented migrant children in the UK. I do not know how many are in the categories we have been discussing but that is an astonishing and worrying figure. To summarise what other noble Lords have said, I end by saying, “and dot, dot, dot”.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Lister of |Burtersett has highlighted an important issue in her regret Motion and I agree with almost everything that every noble Lord has said in the debate so far.
First, my noble friend has highlighted the increase in the fees that have to be paid and that just over one-third of the fee payable is attributed to the costs involved. The Government generally have a confusing attitude to fees and charges, and consistency is at no point evident in the actions they take in this regard. Generally, I am in favour of cost recovery on fees and have been calling for this to be implemented in the planning system. That call has fallen on deaf ears—even my suggestion that the idea should be trialled in one local authority has not been taken up—so council tax payers are left subsidising applicants for planning permission. Despite the Local Government Association calling for this to be brought in, the Government will not engage with it. The overcosts referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, have now reached local government planning, because the fee is a local one and not a national fee set by the Government. In that respect the Treasury is not a direct beneficiary—which might explain its attitude.
Here we have the opposite. We go way beyond recovering the costs of the application and are charging a large amount of money and, in effect, making a large profit from the process of becoming a citizen. My noble friend asks the Government to withdraw the increase until they have done two things: first, published a children’s best interests impact assessment and, secondly, established an independent review of fees for registering children as British citizens in the light of the report of the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement.
Dealing with each point in turn, an impact assessment has been produced in respect of the regulations which is fairly detailed in comparison with some other impact assessments I have read on other statutory instruments. However, my noble friend’s regret Motion of Regret is specific: it does not refer to the whole of the fees set out in the regulations but specifically to the increase that affects children. In that respect the impact assessment is fairly light.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, said, the new Home Secretary, the right honourable Sajid Javid, has accepted that the fee is a very large amount of money. He said on 15 May:
“It is a huge amount of money to ask children to pay for citizenship”.
So my noble friend’s request for a specific impact assessment to be produced focusing on children impacted by this fee increase is reasonable, and I hope the Government will agree to it willingly.
The children impacted include those born in the UK; those who came to the UK at a young age, who have grown up in this country and often have no idea that they are not British; stateless children; and children growing up in local authority care. As we have heard, the British Nationality Act 1981 brought to an end being born in the UK on its own as a sufficient reason to acquire British citizenship—unless you were born to British parents. However, the Act recognised that there would be other children who also had a very strong claim, and if the level of fees being charged is becoming a barrier to that, it is a matter of much regret.
The second part of my noble friend’s Motion draws the attention of the House to the report of the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement. This has a section on the naturalisation process, and two of its recommendations are particularly pertinent to today’s debate. On page 120, at paragraph 485, the Select Committee says that the fees charged for naturalisation should be much more in line with the actual costs and that the Government should not seek to make excessive profits out of the process. On page 122, at paragraph 492, it asks the Government to consider whether the fees should be waived for children in care and children who have spent their entire life in the UK. My noble friend is asking for an independent review to be established in the light of this report—and, again, she makes a very strong case.
I was struck by the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, brought to the debate. I will bring one final point to noble Lords’ attention. The fee in 1983 was £35. If that fee had increased only by taking into account inflation, it would today be £114.71—£897.29 less than the proposed fee of £1,012 in the regulations. As I said at the start of my remarks, I am in favour of cost recovery, so it should be set at least at that £372 mark—but those figures are stark and highlight why my noble friend is right. The Government should act quickly on this and the House should support my noble friend in the Division Lobby.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on securing this important debate and on the way she advanced her arguments. No one can be in any doubt about the strength of her feeling or her concern for the well-being of children, and I pay tribute to the tenacity she shows in furthering this area of work. It is laudable. I am also very grateful to all other noble Lords who have contributed to what has been a thoughtful and compassionate debate. My thanks also go to my noble friend Lord Kirkhope, who of course was, as he said, a Minister for the Home Office, so has great experience and expertise in this area.
I must declare an interest: I came to the United Kingdom as a child and had my first encounter with the immigration system here as a four year-old. So how the immigration system treats children is a subject close to my heart.
I will deal with the specific issues raised by the noble Baroness in her Motion in a moment. Before I do, I will say a few things about the issue at the heart of this debate—the welfare of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, raised this in her contribution. There is no greater test for any society than how it looks after its most vulnerable members.
I remind the House that our immigration, asylum and nationality functions are already delivered with a requirement to take account of the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Indeed, Parliament has explicitly to give statutory effect to that requirement through Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, words in statute are not enough: it is actions that matter.
The Government fully accept the need to be concerned about the plight of migrant children. We understand that children are often caught up in situations and circumstances not of their own making. That is why it is important that I put on record that we have acted and granted asylum or another form of leave to 51,000 children since 2010, and we have committed to resettling 3,000 children and their families fleeing the Syrian conflict under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme by 2020. This is in addition to the 20,000 individuals, who will include children, under the wider Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Since 2010, more than 180,000 children have been granted settlement, giving them the right to remain in the UK permanently, through our routes for children and families. These are not insubstantial numbers.
I also reassure the House that the Home Office has regular meetings with a range of children’s charities and advocacy groups in order to understand children’s needs and ensure that there are ways of meeting them—the Children’s Society in particular but also Barnardo’s, Save the Children and other smaller groups that are in contact with these young people.
I turn to the issue of the fees that the immigration system charges for those who want to come to the UK, whether as visitors or as workers, and for those seeking to make their stay in the UK permanent. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, and other noble Lords raised these important issues. Again, I want to make some general observations. It is essential that we have a sustainable and well-resourced border, immigration and citizenship system that is fair to all who use it and who are affected by it—both issues that my noble friend Lord Kirkhope raised in his contribution.
Income from fees charged for visas and for immigration and nationality applications plays a vital role in such a system and in minimising any additional burden on the taxpayer. It is for that reason that the fees for any individual application are likely to be in excess of the cost of processing an individual application. To put it simply, the fee for an individual application not only pays for the cost of that application but also makes a contribution to the wider cost of operating the border and citizenship system—for example, the Border Force officers who staff the desks at ports and airports. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said he understood the case for charging.
I will come to that point in a moment. The noble Lord makes a very relevant point.
As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said he understood the case for charging. It is only right that immigration fees should contribute to funding an effective and secure immigration system to support the prosperity and security of the UK. This approach, which has been in place since 2004, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, herself acknowledged, was endorsed by Parliament through the enactment of the Immigration Act 2014 and in previous primary legislation, which the 2014 Act replaced.
I shall put this into context. To reset fees for child registration so that they cover just the costs associated with processing an individual application—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven—would reduce fees to below the level that they were in 2007 and reduce the amount of funding that the Home Office has available to fund the immigration system by about £25 million to £30 million per annum. However, I take fully on board the other points that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, made in relation to this.
I turn to the issue of child registration fees. Let me be clear at the outset that, far from wanting children and young people who regard this country as their home to leave, the Government strongly encourage them to make appropriate applications to make their stay here lawful. The most compelling reason for this is that these children are at risk—at risk of being exploited by adults and of being led into unofficial work that is neither safe nor properly rewarded, and without proper status they could easily be led to look to the wrong social groups for support. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, alluded to this.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain how this might apply to children who are here lawfully, who are entitled to be here? It is their entitlement to citizenship that we have been discussing, not the concerns that she is raising, which I see would apply to other cohorts of children, but not, I think, these.
I am getting to that point, but I thought it was important to give the scenario. All children are important, but I want to talk about children who have not been registered in any way. As I said, the most compelling reason for this is that those children are at risk, and we want them to make appropriate and lawful applications.
I accept that the immigration system is complex—several noble Lords raised this issue, including the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and others. I accept that we need to address that and that the system needs to be simplified. But there is no reason why a child who has been in the UK since birth should be afraid of contacting the Home Office or asking a charity to do so on their behalf. I think that that was the point that the noble Baroness was raising.
The Home Office may grant leave to remain to a child who has lived in the UK continuously for seven years or to a young person who is over 18 but under 25 who has lived continuously in the UK for half of their life. Such leave gives the person concerned the right to live, study and work in the UK and the right, in appropriate circumstances, to receive benefits from public funds.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is right that immigration applications require a fee. Even so, an application can be made to the Home Office for the fee to be waived when it involves certain human rights-based claims for leave to remain and there are reasons why the applicant cannot meet the payment required. These human rights-based claims include those that are relevant to a child who has been in the UK continuously for seven years.
In addition, there is no fee where a child is being looked after by a local authority at the time that an application for leave to remain or indefinite leave to remain is made to the Home Office. This will, of course, cover some of the most vulnerable applicants and children in our society.
Of course, some migrants, like my parents, may wish to become citizens, reflecting that they have spent most of their lives here and are committed to this country—I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby that citizenship is important as a part of civil society. That is something that we should welcome. I speak as someone who was born abroad but is now very proud to call myself British.
However, a child will normally acquire citizenship at birth derived from his or her parents. Since 1983, it has not been automatic that a child born in the UK is British. This does not mean that we do not cater for children and their well-being. We care. Children born in the UK are indeed catered for in our immigration and nationality provisions, which are designed to take account of the fact that a child’s strongest entitlement is to preserve links with his or her parents and, where they exist, with his or her country of origin.
If I may respond to the right reverend Prelate, one reason that the Government require formal applications to be made in a designated way is so that all the factors relevant to a child’s life and future can be taken into account in an appropriate and considered way. We do not provide fee waivers for citizenship, which reflects the fact that, while citizenship provides extra benefits such as the right to vote in elections and the ability to receive consular assistance while abroad, becoming a citizen is not necessary to enable individuals to live, study and work in the UK, and to be eligible for benefit of services appropriate to being a child or a young adult. The decision to become a citizen is a personal choice, and it is right that those who make that decision should pay a fee.
My Lords, the noble Baroness suggested that the Government wanted people to take citizenship. We are talking about children. In what way does the increase in fee, which the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has raised in her Motion to Regret, help any of the things that the noble Baroness says the Government aspire to?
My Lords, I have answered in my earlier comments exactly and precisely the question raised by the noble Baroness. I am conscious of pressing time and I want to deal with some specific points that have also been raised.
As I said, the decision to become a citizen is a personal choice, and it is right that those who make that decision should pay a fee. However, the legislation does allow for local authorities which are looking after children to pay a child citizenship fee if they believe it is in the child’s interests.
I shall respond to a few questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said that the Home Office needs to move much more quickly, and I can tell your Lordships that only last week the Immigration Minister met Solange Valdez-Symonds to whom she referred, to discuss this issue, which I think is an indication of the seriousness with which we treat this matter. I can say to the noble Baroness that caring and compassion about the welfare of children, as we have seen this evening, rests across the House, including on these Benches.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Sheehan, the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Russell, and other noble Lords, made some comparisons with Windrush. Just to be clear, Commonwealth citizens who arrived in the UK before 1973 had a legal right to be here then, and to stay here. There is not a comparison between the children we are talking about today and the Windrush generation.
I turn to a question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that the Government are making a profit from children in care. I cannot agree with that, and I totally refute the allegation that has been made. Those in care can qualify, as I said, to receive indefinite leave to remain, and are exempted from paying the fee. Local authorities may also pay their citizenship fee, where appropriate, as I have said. Those who are not in care and who meet the destitution criteria receive limited leave to remain free of charge. The normal period of leave to remain for those applications is 30 months, but there is discretion to grant a longer period of leave and to grant indefinite leave to remain immediately, where appropriate and where it is clearly sought.
We have in place legislative safeguards to ensure that children have access to education and health services, and that they are supported with access to accommodation and living needs if these cannot be provided by their parents. These safeguards apply to all children, irrespective of their immigration status. Limited leave to remain, based on a child’s private life or other human rights grounds, confers legal resident status and allows access to higher and further education, training and employment opportunities.
Time is moving on, and I hope that that has captured some of the issues that were raised. In conclusion, as I said at the start of my remarks, this has been an excellent debate, with informed contributions from all sides. I repeat my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for having given your Lordships the opportunity to discuss this important topic. As I sought to demonstrate, the Government are deeply committed to the welfare of children who come into contact with the immigration system, and the numbers that I cited earlier provide strong evidence of that. We set fees at a level designed to minimise the burden on the taxpayer. As I have said, there is the capacity to waive fees for those who most need it. The Government will continue to honour their international obligations in respect of children and ensure that those children who are here are treated fairly and humanely.
Like the Home Secretary, I understand the issue and care about it passionately. I have heard very clearly the strength of feeling on this matter expressed by your Lordships this evening about children. Of course, I will ensure that the message is transmitted to the Immigration Minister and the Home Secretary.
My Lords, I am very grateful to everybody who has spoken and to noble Lords who have listened as well. I shall not try to sum up everything that has been said, but many noble Lords spoke with great passion and drew attention to how we compare with other European countries in how the fee has increased. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, said that I had argued that the benefits of British citizenship should not be overstated. It was not me who argued that; just for the record, I was stating that that is what the Government argue. Noble Lords such as the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, emphasised the importance to children of citizenship and belonging.
I am grateful to the Minister. I feel that she has drawn the short straw; she has been asked to justify the unjustifiable, and there were moments when I got the sense that she was finding it quite difficult to do so. That is not a criticism, actually—it is a compliment.
I was looking around the House and there was a look of bewilderment on everyone’s faces. I lost count of the number of times that the noble Baroness talked about immigration. A number of noble Lords made it clear from the outset that this is not about immigration; it is about children who are either born here or have lived most of their lives here and know no other country. That is what we are talking about. We are not talking about the number of asylum-seeking children who have been let in—not nearly enough, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Dubs would agree. We are talking about children who belong here, who have discovered that they are not British although they thought they had British citizenship—but they have that entitlement to it. I am afraid I do not see it as context; I see it as rather irrelevant and a bit of a red herring.
The Minister talked about visas, immigration and so forth, and the Border Force. As my noble friend Lord Harris said, these are children who have never crossed a border, so what is the relevance? Why should they be paying for the Border Force? She said that the Government strongly encourage children to apply to make their stay lawful, but they are here lawfully—that is not what they are applying for. She said that the fee could be waived for leave to remain, or indefinite leave to remain. The noble Lord, Lord Alton—I think I have his words correct—said that this is “a flaccid and insulting argument”. I know that the Minister would not want to be insulting, but we are not talking about leave to remain but about the need for citizenship, and it matters. We have been given examples of children who would otherwise have been removed from the country if it had not been for charitable support and the work of the Project supporting them. So it does make a difference, and I am afraid it is not enough to talk about leave to remain.
The Minister then said that it was not right to make the comparison with the Windrush generation because they have the legal right to be here. We are talking about children who have a legal right to be here, which is why a number of us have made the comparison with the Windrush generation, and fear that we are creating a new Windrush generation if we are not making it possible for these children to take up their right to citizenship because of what the Home Secretary himself called a huge cost. “Huge” is not a word government Ministers use lightly, but it is on the record that the Home Secretary thinks that this fee is huge. He said that, yes, perhaps we need to look again at whether we have the balance right. We clearly do not have the balance right. How can we have the balance right when, in effect, there is a surcharge of £640 per each child applying for their right to citizenship?
I am desperately disappointed. When the Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee that,
“we have to get the right balance”,
talked about the “huge amount of money”, said that,
“it is right at some point to take a fresh look … and it is something that I will get around to”—
which, as I said, did not exactly give a sense of urgency—and said, “I understand the issue”, I thought it suggested that the Home Office was finally accepting that it had to do something about this and that there were signs of movement here. It appears that those signs were an illusion. They were fine words, perhaps simply given to placate the Home Affairs Committee.
It is not enough just to say that the Immigration Minister met with Solange Valdez-Symonds from the Project last week. I know that, but a meeting is not enough. I hoped for an acceptance that the Home Office must take some action now, swiftly, and make a clear and firm commitment. In the end, I was asking only for a clear and firm commitment that the Home Office will look at this issue now before further injustice is done. That is not what we have heard tonight. I know that it is late, that many noble Lords will have gone home, and that noble Lords want to get on with the next business, but I am sorry—this is so important. The passion with which so many noble Lords have spoken suggests that we should test the opinion of the House, and I would like to do so.