Nationality and Borders Bill: Bishop of Durham speaks in support of amendments on offshoring of asylum seekers

On 8th February 2022, the House of Lords debated the Nationality and Borders Bill in its fourth day of the Committee stage. The Bishop of Durham spoke in support of amendments 100 and 101, tabled by Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, that would remove the powers in the bill to “offshore” asylum seekers before the consideration of their claims:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, in rising to support Amendments 100 and 101, to which I have added my name, I declare my interests in relation to both the RAMP project and Reset, as set out in the register.

When people arrive on our shores seeking protection, we have a responsibility to treat them as we would wish to be treated if we had to flee for our lives. It is right that we have a process to determine who meets the criteria for refugee status, but while we determine this, we are responsible for people’s safety, welfare and care. If we move them to other countries for the processing of their asylum claims, I fear a blind eye will be turned to their treatment. How will we be sure that they are being treated humanely and fairly, and would our Government even give this much concern once they had left our shores? If we look to the experience of Australia and the refugees accommodated in Nauru, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, has just mentioned, we hear deeply shocking accounts of abuse, inhumane treatment and mental and physical ill-health.

As mentioned in relation to an earlier amendment, I visited Napier barracks last week to see improvements that have been made since the exposure of the disgraceful conditions at the beginning of last year. If what we have seen at Napier is permitted to happen in the UK, what can we expect overseas, where accountability and monitoring will be so much harder? The monitoring of asylum accommodation contractors in the UK is poor, which gives us some idea about the level of monitoring we could expect of offshore processing.

What standard will be set for offshore accommodation? Will it be detention? How can UK safeguards be enforced in another country? Will there be a maximum period of stay? Minister Tom Pursglove stated in the Public Bill Committee that

“we intend their claims to be admitted and processed under the third country’s asylum system.”—[Official Report, Commons, Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, 26/10/21; col. 397.]

This is deeply concerning. These asylum seekers are the UK’s responsibility; they came to us to ask for protection, and we cannot simply wash our hands of them. What will be the acceptable standards of a country’s asylum system for us to discharge refugee determination to them? Can the Minister confirm that, if an individual is granted asylum offshore, they will be granted any form of leave in the UK and readmitted?

We had assurance in the other place from Minister Tom Pursglove that unaccompanied children will not be included in offshoring, but will children in families be offshored? If not, can the Minister assure us that families will not be split up in this process? We need to see any such commitments written into the Bill. I also want reassurance from the Minister that offshore agreements will not be linked to international aid agreements. This would be wrong, so can she give us that reassurance?

Offshoring would be a huge cost to the taxpayer. Can the Minister tell us what work has been done on the costs? Have such costs been endorsed by HM Treasury?

The financial cost is not the only one: there would be a significant cost to our international standing. Are we so keen to tarnish our reputation as a country where human rights are upheld for this inhumane policy, rather than one that is rooted in what will actually work to reduce the need for people to have to use criminal gangs? We will discuss these policy proposals in future debates.

People seeking asylum have arrived on our shores, seeking UK protection. We are responsible for them. It is not a responsibility we can pass over to others. The potential for standards and safeguards to drop is a very serious risk, with the challenges of monitoring and accountability at distance. They would far too easily become forgotten people. Offshoring must simply be ruled out of order.


Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con): My noble friend Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate also asked about the cost to the UK taxpayer, as did other noble Lords. I am afraid I cannot give an approximation as it is a matter for the negotiating table, which I will not prejudice.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked about the inhumanity of offshoring. We will continue to uphold our international obligations and ensure that all removals of individuals are compliant with our obligations under Article 3 of the ECHR, which protects against torture and “inhuman or degrading treatment”.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, asked about children, women and other vulnerable people. Noble Lords are absolutely right that the Minister made our position clear in Committee and on Report in the Commons. I will not go further than what he said there.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: The problem is that the Minister only said, “unaccompanied children”, and did not refer to children in families. I am sorry, but we do not have the confirmation that this addresses the whole range of scenarios—such as families being split up—which we have raised but have not been answered.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): Before the Minister replies, I also asked some questions about children and, more specifically, about when they turn 18 and whether their age will be challenged.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I thank both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness for those points. Generally, in the asylum system in the UK, when someone is about to turn 18, their status changes.

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right; I did not answer questions about all children in all situations. On the previous day in Committee, I went at length through the routes by which children and families can come to the UK—there are several routes, and I think I cited four.

My noble friend Lady Stroud asked about victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. We will only ever act in line with our commitments under our international legal obligations, including those which pertain to potential victims of modern slavery.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: The Minister has made me even more disturbed. She has not said—and neither has anyone in the other place—that families and children will not be offshored.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: As I have just said, I will not go any further than my honourable friend did in the House of Common, save to say that people who—

Lord Rosser (Lab): I understand that the Minister may be unable to respond immediately to the extremely valid question the right reverend Prelate has asked. Presumably, however, the Government as a whole know the answer to his question. Why does the Minister not agree to write to us and tell us what those answers are?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I have said I will write, but to be more explicit than my honourable friend was in the Commons might risk exploitation on routes taken by children. Therefore, this is as far as I will go today. I will lay out the various safe and legal routes through which children can come to this country and reiterate what my honourable friend said in the House of Commons.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: I am very sorry but the noble Baroness is not answering the right reverend Prelate’s question. It is not about safe and legal routes but about who will and will not be offshored, which is an awful term. She seems to be saying that children who are accompanied, who are in families, could well be offshored. Is that correct? The Minister in the Commons refused to answer the question and avoided it; I am afraid that is what the Minister is doing here.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, I am not trying to avoid it; I am saying that that is about as far as I can go. However, I will try to outline any further detail that I can in writing to noble Lords. Noble Lords will know—

Lord Cormack (Con): My Lords—

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I will not take the intervention just yet. I do not generally make misleading comments standing at the Dispatch Box. I will further write.

Lord Cormack: I am most grateful and apologise. Can my noble friend say whether she expects that, by the time we reach Report, she will be able to answer that question? Can she also say whether there are any countries with which we are close to agreement and, if so, what countries those are?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I cannot say what countries we are in discussion with, other than confirming to my noble friend Lady Stroud that we are having some very positive discussions with France. On the other question, I cannot acquiesce to going further at this point, because I do not want in any way to make comments that might put children in danger. As I have just said to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I will write in as much detail as I can following Committee.

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