Nationality and Borders Bill: Bishop of Durham raises concerns about effects on children

On 5th January 2022, the Nationality and Borders Bill was introduced to the House of Lords in its second reading. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate that followed, raising concerns that bill would fail to adequately protect children and others seeking asylum:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: I declare my interests as a member of the RAMP Project and a trustee of Reset, as laid out in the register. This Bill will raise strong views across the Chamber, as already illustrated by the three Front-Bench introductions, for which I thank all three, because I believe that they have served the House well in all three cases. I hope that we can have a debate that is reasoned and evidence-based, ever mindful of the individual humanity of each asylum seeker and refugee of whom we speak.

This Bill needs to be assessed against the Home Office’s own values of being compassionate, respectful, courageous and collaborative. Other values are important, too: the value of every human being as one made in the image of, and loved by, God, the value that we place on the rights of the child both through the United Nations and the Children Act 1989—and then there are the values relating to the right to family life.

This Bill has the stated intention to stop criminal gangs and to increase the fairness of the asylum system. These aims are good; we do not want to see any more people losing their lives so tragically in the channel, as we saw last year. However, in its current form, the Bill is unlikely to achieve either of these goals. It will make the asylum system more complicated and cumbersome, be less fair, provide fewer safe routes and be more expensive.

The differential treatment of refugees according to their mode of arrival is central to the Bill and causes me very deep concern. The Government’s underlying premise in this approach is that the harder we make it for asylum seekers in the UK, the less they will come. 

We have seen no evidence to support this approach. Indeed, if making conditions harder for asylum seekers had the desired effect, we would not be faced with this Bill today. We have an asylum system which is set up to establish the veracity of an asylum claim. Let us rely on that, not on the method of entry.

We are part of a global system, underpinned by the refugee convention, which enables distribution of those requiring protection to a range of countries. An approach of “first safe country” sends a dangerous message to countries with far larger refugee populations, legitimising the avoidance of international responsibilities. It suggests that support for refugees should fall on only a small number of poorer countries. This is highly concerning, as it undermines who we are as a nation. It does not demonstrate being collaborative with or respectful of other nations.

Despite safe routes being central to the premise of the Bill, we see no detail of them. We will not put criminal gangs out of business without expanding safe alternative routes. I am proud that the UK has been a global leader in refugee resettlement since 2015; however, sadly, this is no longer the case. Only 1,163 people resettled to the UK in the first nine months of 2021, compared with the 28,000 people arriving across the channel. We must build on our proud history of resettlement for the future. We need an ambitious yet deliverable target of at least 10,000 places per year.

Refugee family reunion is a vital safe route, enabling mainly women and children to reunite with their husbands and fathers, which is so important for families being together and for integration. However, in this Bill family reunion will be, in effect, non-existent as group 2 refugees will no longer qualify. This does not demonstrate compassionate values. We must also explore humanitarian visas much more for those with the basis of a strong claim from certain countries or for those with family in the UK. The Home Office should explore this as a way of collaborating with both near neighbours and those further away.

Children are rarely talked about in the Bill. If the aim is to make the immigration system fairer, it needs to begin by putting in place protections for those who need it most, especially children.

The Bill should be an opportunity to create a fair, compassionate and effective asylum system that works for the taxpayer, communities and those seeking asylum. Sadly, on many counts I fear that it does not work. We on these Benches will work with others to propose a range of amendments. I fear that the Bill fails the Home Office’s own values; it certainly fails to uphold the UN Convention on Refugees and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: Finally, I turn to the difficult issue of morality. Here I emphasise, or follow, the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I think we can all agree that what we really value is compassion linked to a sense of community and of civic responsibility. When we see our fellow human beings in desperate straits, we want to help, particularly if they are children.

Professor Diana Coole of London University has written extensively on the dangers of trying to create a general policy based and founded on the tragedy of an individual or a series of individuals. Yes, we want to give a hand to the Afghans whom we saw in terrible circumstances last autumn. Yes, we want to give a hand to the Hong Kong Chinese who are now under threat from the Beijing Government. Yes, of course, we want to give a hand to the desperate people we saw in the channel last autumn. But as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will point out in his debate tomorrow, there are 82.4 million displaced people worldwide and many of them are in very serious situations.

To those who suggest that the way to deal with this is to open more legal channels, process applications faster and process those applications at source to cut out the people smugglers, I can see the force of those arguments but we are in danger of creating an immigration superhighway. Those who argue for this need to say what number they think we can accept under the system. What number in a year or over an average of five years? That is an inconvenient truth that has to be faced but face it we must, and because this Bill is trying to face a number of inconvenient truths it has my support.

Lord Hylton (CB): Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I have tried to pinpoint ways our system can be made more humane. We thought that the infamous hostile environment had ended in this country. Will the Minister confirm that this is so? I go further and call for an end to the automatic culture of disbelief when assessing refugees.

Blaming others, such as the French authorities or the traffickers, has been tried and failed. We should put our own house in order by adopting a humane policy. All agencies in Britain must work together. As has been said, we need international co-operation to close supposedly temporary refugee camps and to achieve resettlement.

Lord Moylan (Con): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and various other noble Lords have appealed to our common humanity as the basis on which we should be constructing our immigration law. While we all respect and acknowledge the obligations that arise from our common humanity, that is to get things the wrong way round, because we also have a moral obligation to our own people who live here, in part because we claim and exercise the exclusive right to act on their behalf in this area. I regard that as a prior and balancing moral right. In fact, I would say that the purpose of immigration law is the protection of the stability and welfare of our own society and that our obligations under common humanity are a constraint on how we implement that law, rather than confusing it with what its purpose is.

Baroness Bennet of Manor Castle (GP): My Lords, I begin with a short list of issues that I regard as priorities in trying to make this Bill less disastrously bad. I associate myself with every word said by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, about its impact on some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls. I note that expert legal commentators have described the equality impact assessment of the Bill as superficial and inadequate. Many of the same concerns apply to LGBTIQA+ refugees, a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. The Bill is also of grave concern for its impact on children, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said.

In other contexts, we have heard the Government talk positively about “trauma-informed practice”—for example, in prisons. This Bill is the very opposite of that; it can only be described as abusive of trauma survivors. I note that a briefing from the Royal College of Psychiatrists says that

“a background context of basic physical and emotional security, including an assurance of safety and freedom from harm, is a key factor in recovery from most if not all mental disorders”.

This Bill is clearly actively designed to take refugees who are already in situations far from ideal security and rip not just the rug but the entire ground from under them. They are refugees whose circumstances, as the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, pointed out, we have often played a major part in creating.

Baroness Hamwee (LD): Concern is expressed about the impact of much of the Bill on children. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was the first to mention that issue. Even the clauses righting historical omissions regarding citizenship are overshadowed, and Clause 10 is plain unjust. Citizenship is hugely important; it is about belonging. It is well known that victims of slavery and trafficking, as well as those fleeing persecution, oppression and tyranny, cannot immediately tell the whole or even much of their story. “Late” is a misnomer. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner makes very balanced and powerful comments—to use a neutral term—including on the danger of viewing victims through an immigration lens and ignoring their trauma and exploitation. I cannot, unlike others here, see the Bill as other than a retrograde step back from our world-leading legislation of 2015. What the Minister said about ILR was on the basis of assisting prosecutions. That is important, but it is a complex issue, and it is not the only one, as the noble Lord, Lord McColl, always makes clear.

Lord Coaker (Lab): I am pleased to say that this Chamber reflects the country; there is a clash of views in the country. The Government will say they speak for public opinion—I challenge that. I believe that the whole country is united by a belief that there is an issue around illegal immigration, but I am also convinced that people want it dealt with in a fair, equitable way that reflects the traditions of our country over the decades. This Bill does not do that.

Our country has always prided itself on its tolerance, its welcome to those fleeing war and persecution and its embrace of difference and varying cultures. I am proud of that, as your Lordships’ House will be, so why have the Government introduced a Bill that makes changes for asylum seekers and refugees, altering the current system for asylum claims and appeals and introducing measures on people-smuggling and modern slavery and a two-tier system for asylum seekers arriving in the UK, with differentiation based on method of arrival? It risks undermining that very tradition in which this country has always legislated on these issues. As my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lady Chakrabarti and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, refugees are people. Our values must be applied; our country will be judged on the way in which we treat refugees and asylum seekers.

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con): Perhaps I may move on to differentiation. The noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti, Lady Ludford, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws and Lady Uddin, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke about provisions that differentiate between groups of asylum seekers. I know that there is a difference of opinion about these provisions, but I do not make excuses for doing everything possible to deter people from making these dangerous crossings. I should like to provide reassurance that family reunion, which I know is an issue of particular concern, will be permitted for those in group two where refusal would breach our international obligations under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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