October 5th: Oral Question -getting to the roots of displacement of refugees – speeches on the Immigration Bill Report Stage on Citizenship and Physical Documentation
My Lords, will the noble Baroness at least accept that the answers to the root causes of why 70.8 million people are displaced worldwide will not be found on Ascension Island or disused oil rigs or ferries, and that we must urgently tackle those root causes and bring people together who will look for them? Will she also accept support for the Home Secretary’s call for legal routes for those who are at genuine risk of harm and for the Government’s determination to tackle criminal gangs involved in the trafficking of migrants, and say when detailed plans on that will be published?
I am very pleased to agree with the noble Lord. In fact, he and I spoke the other day about our absolute agreement on how, if we can find the root causes and tackle them, we will cut out some of the criminality around this. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary was absolutely serious yesterday about pursuing those legal routes, because they are the way to run the system.
My Lords, I support Amendment 16, to which I am a signatory. I wholeheartedly endorse the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who has become the terrier-in-chief on this issue, and I am grateful to the Minister for making time to discuss this issue with me last Thursday in advance of today’s debate.
Amendment 16, as we have just heard in the noble Baroness’s speech, is modest in its aim, merely requiring the Secretary of State to consult and report to the House upon both awareness of British citizenship and the exercise of the rights that such citizenship confers. I said a lot about citizenship in Committee and why it is a completely separate matter from issues such as immigration and naturalisation. I will not rehearse all those arguments all over again today; suffice it to say that the amendment does nothing to affect those contested issues.
This thoughtful, moderate, reasonable new amendment simply tries to take the debate forward in a constructive and helpful way. It is also in sync and compatible with the rights to British citizenship that were enacted in Part 1 of the British Nationality Act 1981. I shall summarise what the amendment does. Its new clause contains six subsections. Subsection (1) requires the Secretary of State to lay a report. The people who report concerns are the people defined as “relevant persons” in subsection (6)—that is, in summary, people with rights to British citizenship who are losing EU free movement rights in the UK.
Subsection (2) sets out what that report must contain. It must contain an assessment by the Secretary of State of two matters: the level of awareness among people of their rights to British citizenship and the level of exercise of these rights. In making those assessments, the Secretary of State must have regard to several factors identified within subsection (2)(c), each of which concerns barriers to people being able to exercise their statutory rights to British citizenship.
Subsection (3) requires the Secretary of State to pay particular regard to her equalities duties in producing this report and to make some comparison of the situation of two groups of people with rights to British citizenship: the group of people with rights to British citizenship who are losing EU free movement rights in the UK—this group is the focus of the report required by the amendment—and the group of people with rights to British citizenship who do not have EU free movement rights.
Subsection (4) requires the Secretary of State to undertake consultation in the preparation of her report. Subsection (5) requires the Secretary of State to give particular attention to the situation of various groups of particularly marginalised children and young people, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister; Appendix B provides some case studies relating to those groups of children and young people, similar to those outlined by the noble Baroness; and Subsection (6), which contains definitions, defines children and young people as people under the age of 25.
I shall unpack the amendment in a little more detail. Subsection (2)(c)(i) touches on the impact that fees can have on the rights of citizenship. I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on the court case in which the High Court found against the Home Office. In earlier proceedings, I mentioned that I had given a witness statement. The Royal Courts of Justice will hear the department’s appeal on 5-7 October, and I understand that the case will be livestreamed.
However, what the Minister can comment on is a reply that she gave me to a Written Question on 10 September. I had asked her about the costs of mounting an appeal, and she replied:
“The information that you have requested on legal and administrative costs is not available”,
and added that
“we are not able to provide an accurate assessment of legal costs.”
I will repeat that:
“we are not able to provide an accurate assessment of legal costs.”
This inability to establish what the legal taximeter is clocking up contrasts starkly with the ability of the Home Office to work out how much it costs to operate this system of fee collection, and which, at over £1,000, the former Home Secretary Sajid Javid rightly said is a prohibitively expensive system. Why is it that we are able to work out how much we can generate in fees above the administrative costs, but cannot work out the costs of fighting legal actions which simply compound one mistaken decision with another? What other litigant would embark on a major legal action without any idea of what it could cost? I am sure that the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which keeps a weather eye on how taxpayers’ money is used, will have something to say about that.
Even more serious, however, is the principle of putting a major financial roadblock in the path of those who need to feel that they belong, that they are part of the web and weave of British society, and that they are true citizens of what is a truly great country. The importance of knowing you belong is something that I know is close to the heart of the Minister; we are at one on that. This amendment would seek an examination of such barriers.
Throughout preceding debates, noble Lords have repeatedly pressed the Government about children’s rights, especially those of looked-after children. Surely their vulnerable and special position alone should justify at least an examination of their special circumstances. Let us recall, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has done, that the High Court said that fees cause many children caught up in this fee-generating arrangement to feel
“alienated, excluded, isolated, ‘second best’, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK”.
We have a duty to address the implications of those words.
To that group I would add another, which is covered in proposed new subsection 3(a) of the amendment: those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. The House will recall that in Committee I raised the position of the Roma—something to which the noble Baroness also referred in her remarks. I would especially draw the Minister’s attention to the position of Roma children, who have been cited by the European Children’s Rights Unit as being especially disadvantaged and at risk.
I truly hope that the Minister will feel able to accept this amendment. I am sure that even if, in the first instance, it was confined to the most at-risk categories, it would represent a good start. Seeking a consultation and a review is not an unreasonable ask. I commend this amendment to the House.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB) 8.30 pm
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and the noble Lord, Lord Polak, on the manner in which they introduced this important Amendment 18. The noble Lord, Lord Polak, grew up in what was my Liverpool constituency; on a day when Liverpool has been licking its wounds, it is especially good to hear a Liverpool voice speaking such common sense, particularly from the Government Benches.
I spoke in Committee in support of the principles outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, which underpin Amendment 18. This evening, he has again eloquently reminded us of some of those who will be disadvantaged and worse—as my noble friend Lady Bull has reminded us—should they not be able to access physical documentation. The noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Polak, also reminded us that digital systems are far from being infallible. What of those who simply do not have access to the technology, or have never been given access to the skills required to be able to use it? The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, made some telling points, especially about the reasonableness of this very moderate amendment.
In Committee, I specifically referred to the difficulties being faced by Roma travelling people with the digital requirements to which they will be subjected. I was disappointed at earlier stages that more was not said in response. I once again urge the Minister to address the Equality Act requirements to counter the discriminatory disadvantage that Roma will inevitably experience if this option of physical documentation is not made available. However, it is not only Roma. As other noble Lords have said, all of us have received correspondence from people anxious to retain physical documentation.
That brings to my mind a personal experience. My late mother was from a Gaeltacht area, or Irish-speaking area, in the west of Ireland, where, until their early deaths, her parents had worked a small hill farm. When they died, their children were scattered, and my mother emigrated.
Her first language was Irish, she had little schooling and no documentation, and she was doing domestic jobs to make a living.
Years later, my late father, a Desert Rat, wanted to take her on her first foreign holiday.
Obtaining physical documentation was a challenge, although not insuperable. In the course of it, I was surprised by a revealing comment she made: that despite the specific freedoms enjoyed by the English and the Irish in those days to travel freely between both jurisdictions, she had always been worried about having no physical documentation.
Happily, that was resolved, and her documents provided me, my children, and now my grandchildren, with the right to Irish as well as British passports—both of which I am proud to have.
I tell this story to illustrate the importance of physical documents to establish who you are and affirm your identity.
The noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Polak, as well as other noble Lords, are right to have persisted with their amendment. I hope that, if we have to divide, we will support this amendment. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government will give it further thought and perhaps come back with their own amendment at Third Reading.