Bishop of Carlisle supports Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill

On 15th December 2017 the House of Lords debated the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL], a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Baroness Hamwee. The Bishop of Carlisle, Rt Revd James Newcome, spoke in support of the Bill:

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, I too am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I am delighted that this debate is about families, which is an apt topic as Christmas approaches. I am not speaking of the nostalgic image of a nuclear family around a groaning table; the Christian table is plainer but more welcoming and inclusive, a table around which all are welcome.

Round the table gathers a family. Our country has for so long and so rightly emphasised the family as a—perhaps the—key building block of society. At the present time we seek urgently for social integration, a society where shared values and shared culture bind us all into an ethos of mutuality which naturally, organically, squeezes out extremisms, violence, injustices and hate.

We have found that we cannot really legislate for this, and only to a limited extent can we educate for it. We just have to build it. We have to undermine the divisive idolatry of individualism by growing networks at every level of social reality. About the most effective growing medium for this is the age-old one of kinship—that is, the family.

I have a particular interest in health policy, on which I speak for the Church of England. Time and again I see how utterly vital family support is for health, both mental and physical; how loneliness, for instance, has certain negative impacts which have been the focus of some very welcome attention during the past year.

Into this scene now comes the reality of refugees, as we have been hearing, just as the Holy Family were refugees at the first Christmas. Not the least tragic of the consequences of war, persecution and civil unrest around the world is the tearing apart of families—of children from their parents, of family groups for whom their interdependence is an essential resource as they strive for resilience in the face of dreadful events and such severe dangers.

So people arrive in this country or in Europe, or perhaps come to the attention of the UNHCR in a conflict region. A child may be adrift in a place where he or she is easy prey for traffickers. Parents may be worried sick about their child, whether under 18 or not. The exact configuration of mutual support will vary from family to family; it is not just a matter of parents and their children.

It is very apparent, and not just in the season of good will, that British people are desperately concerned for those who are driven from their homes and divided from their families, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Of course, questions about pull factors and the possibility of abuse of the system are valid, and we all understand them. But to let them drive the direction of policy is to let the exception dictate the rule and run the risk of driving desperate and vulnerable refugees into the unscrupulous hands of criminals.

Others have a greater grasp of the detail of all this than I do, but the barriers we are currently putting up to the reunion of refugee families seem to me to be disproportionate to the benefits that could come for individuals, for families and for our communities as we seek to strengthen family life—a theme, incidentally, which featured strongly in all three of the debates in your Lordships’ House yesterday on vulnerable children, poverty and the right to justice. So if stringent checks are needed, let us not use that as a means of introducing friction into the system and dissuading people from trying to do the right thing for their family. Rather, let us provide the information, the support and, let us hope, the legal aid which will help them to navigate the system.

Because every family and every situation is different, let us not draw the rules so tightly that truly deserving families are disqualified from consideration without any attention to natural justice. For example, it is often not fair that a relative who is under 18 at the time of application is disqualified because he or she reaches their 18th birthday during a long drawn-out application process. Where we rightly build into our rules discretion for their interpretation, with some flexibility to allow for special circumstances, perhaps we can train and support officials to use that discretion to make exceptions not grudgingly but with an eye first of all to fairness.

Although I began with a reference to the Christmas season, this is not a matter of ephemeral good will. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed out, it is a matter of our national identity as a hospitable nation which strongly believes in the values of family. This Bill is the natural corollary of those values and I support it most warmly.