Shine A Light

The nasty country? Debating immigration in the UK

A new Bill removes most grounds of appeal for immigration decisions, excludes undocumented migrants from the rental market, turns landlords into immigration police and extends charges for NHS care. On Monday 10 February Lords debated the proposals.

Roger Roberts
12 February 2014

The Coalition government's Immigration Bill, described by barrister Frances Webber as "another punitive Bill which strips away legal protection from migrants and will increase homelessness, ill health and destitution" has completed its passage through the Commons. On Monday 10 February, during second reading in the Lords, the Liberal Democrat Roger Roberts — Lord Roberts of Llandudno — made the following contribution (slightly trimmed here). The full debate is on Hansard.

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Lord Roberts of Llandudno (Lib Dem Peers)

One thing surprises me — neither of our UKIP members is here or taking part in this debate Usually when we debate in this House we debate matters that affect us in this country. This Bill looks beyond our borders, to those in different circumstances, with different needs and from different cultures; those used to different ways of life that may seem strange to us. These are people who, because they are different, may seem difficult to understand and respond to. Because of this difference, people are suspicious of them and questions arise. This can lead to hostility, because traditional ways of life seem to be threatened and disappearing.

We live in a changing world, a different world. The Welsh word for looking to the past and longing for it is “hiraeth”, and there is a hiraeth here for what used to be. I could go on for hours about Wales as it used to be, some 50 or 60 years ago. But it is not like that any longer. Things have changed, and in spite of the memories, we have to face this changing situation in which we find ourselves. I could remember—well, I do not really—the Liberal Wales of 1906. That would have been a tremendous time to live in Wales. But that is yesterday, and yesterday changes and we are here in a new century.

Suspicion and hostility are natural things, but they can be replaced by trust and acceptance. This owes a great deal to the media. If they foster hostility and poison, it does a great disservice to us in so many ways. Our future is to have people who understand and accept each other, which means that our national curriculum should have that sort of emphasis — that we accept, learn and share experiences, and schools are places where hostility ends and where children of different nationalities and backgrounds blend together.

We should say how much we appreciate the work that goes on in so many of these schools in overcoming what would be a hostility. But the newspapers that are read at home create that hostility. We cannot legislate for that, of course, but we must try to influence it so that, when people read about it, they know whether they are reading a balanced account of what is happening.

Does this Bill help or hinder? It is a question which we hope, as the Bill passes through this House, we might be able to answer by saying that this is a Bill about hospitality and not hostility. Much of the Bill deals with and affects those seeking asylum in the UK. I am proud to be president of the Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary. . .

The right to work

Let us look, first, at the question of work. I have a Private Member’s Bill . . . which tries to reduce the time from 12 months to six months that asylum seekers have to wait before they can try for a job in the United Kingdom. In an ideal world . . . no asylum seeker would be waiting for a decision for such a long time.

Successive Governments have utterly failed to come close to what I would suggest is the ideal. We force asylum seekers to be dependent on the state; many of them try to exist on £36.62 per week, because of decisions, through no fault of their own, that keep them out of work for all this time.

If we had this reduction, we could reduce the burden on the taxpayer, as asylum seekers who are able to work will no longer need to be supported. They may instead contribute to the economy through taxes and consumer spending. I know that my coalition partners always stress how wonderful it is to have hard-working families . . . Yet they are denying people who would be hard-working families from undertaking any job whatever.

Eleven other European Union countries already permit asylum seekers to work after six months or less: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. They all permit this to happen — so why do not we also?

The EU reception conditions directive has reduced the period when asylum seekers can be excluded from the labour market to nine months. But we have not signed up to this directive. We are putting ourselves so out of step with other nations. Let us not forget that 5,500 asylum seekers have been waiting for more than six months for a decision on their asylum claim. I suggest that we have a lot of catching up to do, to catch up with other European nations...

Children

I want to mention the children’s aspect to this Bill. I supported the coalition at the beginning because we promised to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. At its peak, there were over 2,000 children a year in immigration detention, often in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. This has been reduced; in December, it was down to 24 children between the ages of five to 17. I hope — and the suggestion has already been made —that this will now be enshrined in statute and that no longer will any child be detained for immigration purposes.

I also suggest that this House must review the Bill’s current definition of who counts as an asylum-seeking child. A number of clauses seek to limit the definition to those who are British-born or who have been here for seven years or more. Worryingly, this excludes most asylum-seeking children, many of whom come here as teenagers. There were 1,125 applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in 2012 and 835 applications in the first three quarters of 2013. Troublingly, the vast majority of these would be excluded from the definitions in the Bill. So I hope that the Minister can give me an assurance that they, too, will be included.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989 make the best interests of the child a primary consideration in any decision that concerns children. The Home Office has a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. That must remain the case—and, again, I ask the Minister to confirm that point.

Right to legal representation

Another problem that is arising now is the fact that free legal advice and representation is no longer available for immigration purposes; that has been the case since 1 April 2013. Only cases in which an individual has an asylum or protection claim are covered, while non-asylum claims have been cut. I suggest that lack of legal assistance undermines a person’s ability to put forward the necessary evidence and legal arguments and have their cases fairly determined. For example, to make an application under Article 8, it is necessary to gather extensive evidence demonstrating the extent to which a child has developed a personal life and connections within the UK.

Expert evidence from psychologists is often required, as might be evidence from a child’s carer, teacher, therapist or medical professional. It is vital not only to understand and obtain evidence but also the child must be able to present it appropriately. This requires guidance from legal professionals to ensure that all relevant matters informing a best interests assessment are addressed . . . Some young people who came to the UK as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are, thanks to cuts in legal aid, being forced to try and represent themselves. Is that the best that we can do for these children?

Up until their 18th birthday, asylum-seeking children are protected in this nation but it is a sad state of affairs that then, on their 18th birthday, everything can change. They are here for most of their formative years, developing their personality, friends, and language as well as culture, and then suddenly they are deported. Suddenly, they are not welcome — suddenly, they do not count. I can hardly imagine.

We speak of the withdrawal of citizenship — is there anything worse than this withdrawal, at the age of 18, of the status of children and young people? I hear tales of terror and desperation — how one lad pushed a wardrobe against the door of his bedroom in case a dawn raid descended on him. These are stories that make you weep, because they are not in our tradition of being humane and respectable in every way towards those who are most vulnerable in our communities.

I am very proud of so much that has been in the past. We can deny and reject that or we can continue our historic contribution to ensuring that every individual who seeks to visit, study, settle or claim sanctuary here is treated with respect and compassion.

I shall end my speech with something that I have said before. An asylum seeker, failed or successful, is a human being — just like every one of us in this Chamber.

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