The Illegal Migration Bill has now completed Report stage in the House of Lords. Since this Bill was first introduced, I have been deeply concerned about the impact it will have on some of the most vulnerable children – those who have been trafficked, or fled persecution and abuse, and arrived on our shores in need of protection.
I have been clear that there are some significant changes needed to the Bill. I want to ensure that children who arrive here alone are allowed to claim asylum, and not forcibly removed at 18. That children, and pregnant women, cannot be detained for indefinite periods of time.
I want all children arriving here to be cared for by Local Authorities, as is required by the Children Act 1989, not housed in Home Office run hotels that cannot safeguard them.
I want to make sure that age-assessments are done fairly and without coercion. And I want to make sure that there are safe and legal ways for children to come here when they need to.
I have been pleased to see the high level of careful scrutiny of the Bill during its report stage in the House of Lords. Throughout the debates, it has been clear that peers across the House have wanted to make sure that the rights of some of the most vulnerable children are protected.
I have been particularly pleased to see amendments agreed that would allow unaccompanied children to continue to claim asylum; that would place time limits on the detention of children; which would challenge the removal of children from local authority care; and would create more safe and legal routes for children to seek asylum.
I still urgently want to see changes that would prevent the Home Office accommodating children, so that they are looked after by Local Authorities from the moment they arrive. I remain deeply concerned about safeguarding practices in these hotels, all the more so because I have still not received basic information I requested in April from the Home Office about the children in their accommodation and how they are being kept safe.
It is vital that as the Bill returns to the House of Commons these changes are retained. The Prime Minister is right that we must do all we can to prevent dangerous small boat crossings from happening. But we must also do all we can to keep children who have experienced war, persecution and trauma safe when they arrive on our shores. I believe the changes made to the Bill in the House of Lords will go some way to achieving that goal.
At the same time the debates on the Bill were happening, the Government also published a Child Rights’ Impact Assessment on the Bill, which I have been calling for since its introduction. These impact assessments examine how children’s rights, as set out in the United Nations Convention on Children’s Rights, are affected by new laws.
I believe they should be conducted by Government alongside every piece of legislation. It can be a way to ensure that potential adverse effects on children are identified early on, and changes and mitigations put in place.
However, this impact assessment, and the proposed mitigations it contains, does not allay my concerns about the impact of this Bill on children. Throughout, judgements about the positive impact it will have on children’s rights are reached on the basis that it will deter trafficking, and so make children safer.
I am far from convinced that is the case. Indeed, I am concerned that the threat to a child of deportation at 18 will be a gift to traffickers, as children will feel less able to seek help from professionals and instead go missing into the hands of exploiters.
The mitigations of this risk discussed in the CRIA are that local authorities will continue to safeguard these children – without acknowledgement of how much harder that will become.
Some of the impacts are assessed as neutral or positive based on assertions about how the law will be used which are not detailed in the Bill itself. The CRIA states that Home Office accommodation will only be used for children as a ‘last resort’ and for a short period – but none of this is contained within the legislation.
The CRIA states that policy on how the removal of children from the care of local authorities will operate is still being worked out. I am clear that every unaccompanied child arriving here should be looked after by local authorities, from the moment they arrive, until they are 18.
I note that the impact assessment contains no assessment on the current safeguarding arrangements of children in Home Office accommodation. The Home Office has still not been able to provide me with vital information I have requested about the safeguarding of children in their accommodation.
I am therefore unclear about how they can make informed assessments about the impact of the Home Office accommodating children without having this data.
That it is not readily available to them is in itself a safeguarding failure, as routine monitoring of this sort of data is an essential part of keeping children safe.
The CRIA acknowledges that there are potential negative impacts on children when it comes to the changes to rules on detention, and the use of force on children to enforce compliance. In these instances it suggests mitigations which are simply insufficient.
No degree of consultation can prevent indefinite detention or the extended use of force on children from having a severely negative impact on children’s rights.
This impact assessment relies on overly optimistic assumptions about what might come to pass to reach conclusions about the positive effect on children, while ignoring or overlooking the clear, evidenced and tangible negative impacts it will have.
I remain certain that changes to the Bill are required in order to avoid devastating consequences for some of the most vulnerable children I have met.
I hope that a way forward can be found in the House of Commons.