Lord Alton of Liverpool
5TH JUNE 2023
My Lords, I support the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lady Meacher, my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I begin by referring to a meeting that my noble friend Lord Singh and I held with Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, quite recently. She had personally seen children coming off the boats. The Refugee Council found that, of the 45,000 people who made the journey in 2022, some 8,700 were children—one in five of the overall number. In response to the questions put by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, perhaps the Minister could confirm the numbers.
Dame Rachel has also visited the accommodation in which many of these children are placed. I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. When the Children’s Commissioner was consulted, was she consulted about this Bill? How did she respond? How does he respond to her view that the Bill drives a “coach and horses” through the Children Act 1989?
The position of children should certainly concentrate our minds. My noble and learned friend perhaps knows better than anyone in this House, as a former head of the Family Law Division, how important it is that we have proper cognisance of the effects of law on children. I asked Dame Rachel about the origins and stories of some of the children whom she had met, to which my noble and learned friend referred as well. Some had travelled from Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iran; some had taken journeys that lasted a whole year; some had been left as orphans; and some had been traumatised by war. Many told horrific stories. For instance, she described the story of an Iranian boy who watched his parents being killed and who made the long and arduous journey here to safety. She also referred to a Down’s syndrome child left on their own. She said that decisions about their treatment and future were being taken by inappropriately low-ranking officials who had “no understanding of safeguarding”. Will the Minister urgently look into this question about whether safeguarding criteria are different from the safeguarding used in children’s homes? Are the provisions in the Bill compliant with the duties contained in the education Acts, and are they Gillick compliant? Does the Minister recognise the Children’s Commissioner’s description of the Bill as a “traffickers’ charter”?
No child should be assumed to be an adult—a point made very well a moment ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. There is no cliff edge. There seems to be an assumption woven into the web and weave of this Bill that there is a magic moment when you cease to be a child and become an adult. The position of children should certainly be put into the impact assessment, which we all wait to see with great anticipation. But it is not simply an impact assessment that has been missing from the legislative scrutiny to which I referred earlier. Only one Select Committee—the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member—has had the chance to scrutinise this Bill, and it has had to do so at a crazy pace, with many of our meetings clashing with the Bill’s proceedings. All being well, it will reach its final iteration tomorrow—not, I am glad to say, “in due course”. This is simply no way to make legislation. When we legislate in haste, we end up repenting at leisure.
At Second Reading, I referred to my misgivings about a number of aspects of the Bill, and among these was the treatment of children: the subject of these amendments. They are affected by every aspect of the Bill, which clearly infringes the rights of children set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, referred to by my noble friend Lord Hannay.
The Home Office says, as its justification for doing this, that it is protecting the best interests of children by seeking to deter them and the adults accompanying them from embarking on these journeys in the first place. This is a straw man argument. It relies on the assumption that the child or adult knew in advance how dangerous the journey would be and assumes that, in any event, the journey would be less dangerous than, say, staying in Sudan, where millions are now displaced; or think of the plight of women in Iran; or think of those in Nigeria who are facing execution because of their beliefs or orientation, or facing genocidal attacks from Boko Haram. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not revolve around such calculations.
The desire for deterrence cannot negate or supplant the duty of the UK and this Government to protect all children—every child, whatever their origins—within our jurisdiction. How a country treats its children is a mark of whether that country deserves to describe itself as civilised. How do convention duties square with indefinite detention in whatever place the Secretary of State and her officials deem appropriate and for however long she decides is reasonably necessary before she maybe decides that they should be cast out? How can our convention rights be squared with dispatching children to far-flung places without any true idea of what circumstances will await them there? Who will verify that appropriateness? What will be the criteria? How will such assessments be undertaken?
Too many of the Bill’s provisions relating to children are vague and insufficiently rigorous. The Bill puts on to a statutory footing the provision of accommodation for unaccompanied children, but then fails to define what form such accommodation must consist of. It is as if we have learned nothing from the endless ordeals of children in institutional care. I repeat: why is Home Office accommodation not being made subject to the duties set out in the Children Act 1989? Why are standards or requirements not set out in the Bill itself? I ask this against a backdrop of the Home Office accommodating unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hostels since 2021. Can the Minister remind us how many of those children have gone missing? How many remain missing? How can the Minister justify the provisions to take a child from local authority accommodation, which is subject to the 1989 Act, and put them into Home Office accommodation, which is not? There are also convention implications from age assessment, not least invasive body searches of children who may have undergone trauma or have been subjected to abuse. Is that Gillick compliant?
We should be clear that these and other provisions mean that the Bill is likely to fall short of compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also likely to fall short under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and potentially Article 3, which deals with prohibition of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment. Has the Minister also considered Article 22 of the convention and any use of powers to remove a child without first considering their asylum claim? These are crucial questions; if they cannot be resolved here in Committee, they will certainly have to be resolved when we reach Report. I hope the Minister will be able to give the Committee the courtesy of a reply to some of these questions today.