Today’s Debate September 9 2020 – and the case of Ugandan mother Mercy Baguma
My Lords, I speak against the backdrop of a story I read over the weekend in the Universe newspaper. It concerned a Ugandan refugee, Mercy Baguma, who in August was left to die in a Glasgow flat. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the account left her “consumed with sadness and anger”. A representative of the Positive Action in Housing charity said that Ms Baguma’s one year-old son was found crying beside his mother’s body, weakened from several days of starvation. I know that my support for Amendments 29 and 31 would not have saved her life, and I know, too, that if these amendments are passed, they will not help everyone who is a refugee or seeking asylum. However, we must do what we can to help whoever we can whenever we can; that is surely our job and I do not think anyone in the Chamber would disagree with that.
I will speak in favour of Amendment 29 on work rights, tabled by my noble friend Lady Meacher, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I support also Amendment 31 on the displaced talent visa, tabled by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and to which I am a signatory. It addresses the widely held view that, whatever our differences about the nature of migration and the humanitarian duty, as some of us see it—and I do—to respond to people forcibly displaced from their homes and countries, this country will always have a need of skilled labour, and that where sponsorship is available from an employer, this win-win situation should at least be provided for by the creation of a new visa. The Government have said that they intend that this legislation and the new immigration system to be set out in subsequent Immigration Rules will attract the “brightest and the best” from overseas to work here.
The United Nations estimates that there are over 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world. While we clearly cannot help them all, an amendment such as this would enable us to help some of them. Many people displaced by conflict or persecution have valuable professional skills in areas such as medicine and engineering, but they are stuck in refugee camps like the one I visited a few months ago in northern Iraq, and I know that my noble friend Lord Hylton, who is in his place, has visited camps in Syria. These people have been displaced and are unable to use their skills to support their families and rebuild their lives. At the same time, for this country to fulfil the Prime Minister’s ambition to be “Global Britain”, we require an immigration system that is open, fair and allows those with much-needed skills to come here with their families to work and to build a future with us. It is easy to make slogans about attracting the brightest and the best, but how can we ensure that those with skills whose lives have been blown off course by conflict or persecution can still access labour market mobility?
Through its work in Jordan and Lebanon especially, Talent Beyond Boundaries has found that there are particular barriers under the current UK tier 2 regime that make it difficult for a displaced Syrian in Jordan, for example, to have the same opportunity to come to the UK to work as someone with the same skills from Australia, India or the United States. They are required to provide the identity documents specified by the Home Office when these can be provided only by a hostile regime. We all know that that would be an impossibility. Amendment 31 therefore urges the Government to create a displaced talent visa specifically to address such barriers and pave the way to eventually put in place a global scheme.
Events in this pandemic year have once again underlined the necessity to deal with the fragile and unsustainable nature of the world in which we live. In considering what a new immigration system for the UK should look like, we have a duty to construct models that take account of the complexities caused by conflict and persecution and to devise an immigration system that genuinely enables those who want to offer us their skills to do so, and to do much more to tackle the root causes that lead to 37,000 people being forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict or persecution, joining 70 million others. None of this should close our eyes to the importance of constructing, along with other nations, a humane and fair system for resettling refugees and others who need a place of sanctuary.
Turning to Amendment 29, I begin by saying that it is substantively different from the displaced talent visa being proposed in Amendment 31, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out. It and others in the group address the right of asylum seekers already in the UK to work after a certain period while they are waiting for their cases to be decided. In contrast, the displaced talent visa facilitates the arrival of forcibly displaced persons through labour market mobility; that is, they will have a sponsoring employer and a job offer already in place, and they are not seeking humanitarian protection as UNHCR-defined refugees. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who said that the Government should not offer the same argument in response to these very different amendments. When he comes to reply, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, will differentiate between them.
The displaced talent visa is concerned with widening access to labour market mobility, not substituting for humanitarian resettlement or as an alternative to enabling access to asylum for those who require it. Where there are similarities between the amendments, they involve the freedom to work to support yourself and your family, and the dignity, alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, of being allowed to do so, as well as providing benefits to the UK through meeting labour shortages, tax revenue, avoiding reliance on public funds and the better integration of people into the community. Research has shown that bans on working result in poorer integration outcomes because work helps people to learn English and meet other people.
Amendment 29 returns to an issue I have repeatedly raised with Ministers and in your Lordships’ House: the right to work. Indeed, it was the subject of a meeting some years ago that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and I attended with the then Minister, Brandon Lewis. I hope that the Minister will see this as a precedent for reforming the current work-banning arrangements. It would be good to know what stage the review we were told about at Second Reading, which was begun in 2018, has reached, and when we might see the outcome.
As the Minister has been told, the Lift the Ban coalition, which supports the amendment, is made up of over 240 organisations and individuals across the country calling for the restoration of the right to work for people seeking asylum and their adult dependants, if they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for six months. That broad coalition includes the CBI, the Adam Smith Institute, the TUC, UNISON and the Church of England, and is supported by grass-roots organisations, national charities, think tanks, faith groups and businesses, demonstrating widespread support for this common-sense proposal.
I am a patron of Asylum Link Merseyside. Through its wonderful work, and that of groups in Lancashire with whom my wife volunteers as an English language teacher, as well as organisations such as Refugee Action, I have heard first-hand accounts of asylum seekers who, having been effectively prohibited from working, must subsist, as my noble friend Lady Meacher told us earlier on the derisory sum of £5.56 per day in asylum support. I repeat: £5.56 per day. Imagine for a moment trying to make ends meet on that and the effect on your human dignity and self-respect, especially when you are then denied the fundamental right to work. This is a right enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 insists:
“We all have the right to employment, to be free to choose our work, and to be paid a fair salary that allows us to live and support our family.”
We have heard about the benefits to the economy of allowing people to work. We were told about the survey showing that businesses overwhelmingly support this call. In denying the right to work, we damage people personally, we impede social integration, we deny the value of the work ethic, we entrench poverty and we emasculate self-sufficiency. The contribution that work makes to social integration is spelled out in terms in the Government’s own immigration White Paper, and I applaud that.
I end by saying this. The coalition has drawn my attention to the story of one young Afghan woman denied the right to work. She says, “I want to work because it gives me the feeling of being someone. I want to work because I don’t want to look back after five or 10 years and realise that I did little except sit in a room and wait for a decision on my asylum claim. I could have been doing something positive for people’s health by putting my knowledge and expertise into practice.” Those words and the story of Mercy Baguma, which I referred to at the outset of my remarks, should stir us into taking action in this Bill. I hope that the noble Lord will agree to meet representatives of the Lift the Ban coalition and consider these amendments carefully between now and Report so that it will not be necessary to call a Division.
My Lords, this has been a powerful and moving debate. I begin by mentioning the tragic case of Mercy Baguma, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. Like him, I was greatly distressed when I heard about her case. Indeed, the news came through when I was visiting my family for the first time since this pandemic began, and that really underlined for me how lucky we are if we can take for granted the prosperity and stability of a family home. Naturally, an investigation was launched immediately to understand what had happened in Ms Baguma’s case.
That investigation is ongoing, so I hope that the noble Lord will understand if I cannot comment on the specifics at this stage. However, I hope that I can reassure him and other noble Lords that the Government take the well-being of all those in our care extremely seriously. People who are worried about becoming destitute can apply for support, including financial support and accommodation. We are working with others, including, in the case of Ms Baguma, Police Scotland and the procurator fiscal to understand what went wrong, but also to ensure that people are aware of and can access the support they need to avoid that sort of tragedy.
My Lords, I am very happy to be part of the infantry supporting the arguments and the amendments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, as we have done on previous occasions. It is a tragedy that we even have to revisit this issue, because it ought to have been resolved by now. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, well enough to know that she cannot be happy that this has not been resolved, not least because of the High Court judgment that we witnessed in December.
It is not worthy of this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just said. And as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, was suggesting, there is a sort of shabbiness in generating income through fees above the administrative cost of the registration system.
The sheer inappropriateness of applying this charge to children—as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, to children even in the care of local authorities—is something we surely have to rectify.
The noble Baroness will recall the exchanges we had via correspondence and Parliamentary Questions following the High Court ruling on 19 December.
I listened to what my noble friend Lord Russell of Liverpool said about this issue repeatedly coming around: I provided a witness statement to the court based on my participation in the proceedings on the British Nationality Act 1981, when I was a young Member of another place.
In my witness statement, I cited the stated intention of Parliament in 1981: that children who were born here and grew up here but were without parents would be entitled to be registered as British citizens. I told the court that I had no doubt that it was Parliament’s intention that this should be done via a straightforward and accessible process.
There was no discussion at the time about a revenue generator or profitability or any of the other phrases people want to use.
I am sure that the Government did not set out to say, “We want to make a profit”, but the money being generated is way above the amount necessary to be spent on processing these applications.
Whatever we call it, it does not seem right to me that this surplus should be generated by these vulnerable people.
I am not alone in thinking that this is a disproportionate amount of money.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, concluded her remarks by reminding us that it was the former Home Secretary Sajid Javid himself who said that this was a “huge amount of money”.
It my witness statement, I also referred to our duties under the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In 1981 the legislation was of course against a backdrop of riots in Toxteth in Liverpool and Brixton.
The main focus of our debate was expressed in a statement by the Minister of the day, who said that we had to encourage a greater sense of having a stake in society and promote British identity and citizenship, especially as some children were losing the automatic right to citizenship as a result of the 1981 Act.
This entitlement was not to be made dependent on a child satisfying the Secretary of State that they met the relevant conditions of the Act. This is a point eloquently made, and insisted upon, in a statement to your Lordships’ House on 6 October 1981 —it can be found at col. 36 in Hansard—by the then Lord Advocate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
In December last, on the day of the High Court ruling by Mr Justice Jay, I tabled two Questions to the noble Baroness.
One was on
“what assessment they have made of the ruling of the High Court on 19 December in the case brought by the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens that there is a ‘mass of evidence’ that the fee charged to children registering for British citizenship prevents many such children from registering British citizenship, leaving them feeling ‘alienated, excluded, ‘second-best’, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK.’”
The second Question was on
“when they intend to remove the fee charged by the Home Office to register children as British citizens; and whether they intend to refund those who paid such fees before the High Court ruling on 19 December.”
The noble Baroness replied to me, as she always courteously and efficiently does, and I was grateful for that. On 7 January, she said:
“The judgment was handed down on 19 December, and we are carefully considering its implications, and next steps.”
I know your Lordships’ House will want to hear this evening what care has gone into that process, where we are up to and what the next steps will be. Today, she has the chance to outline those steps.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Jay said that:
“British citizenship is a status aspired to and cherished by many, conferring benefits on the holder which are both tangible and intangible.”
Mr Justice Jay confirmed the details which we in our debate have laid before the Committee of the rising costs of these fees: children entitled to be registered under the British Nationality Act 1981 must pay a fee of £1,012—with a higher amount of £1,206 for adults—together with £80 for the citizenship ceremony. He confirmed the Secretary of State’s admission that
“only £372 of that fee is attributed to the administrative cost of processing the application; the remainder effectively cross-subsidises other functions in connection with immigration and nationality.”
In his judgment, Mr Justice Jay said that:
“The evidence before me is that for a substantial number of children a fee of £1,012 is simply unaffordable.”
He cited earlier judgments that
“the fact of belonging to a country fundamentally affects the manner of exercise of a child’s family and private life, during childhood and well beyond.”
He quoted with approval the Secretary of State’s own guidance documents. At paragraph 20, Mr Justice Jay stated what noble Lords have repeated in your Lordships’ House today:
“there is a mass of evidence supporting the proposition that a significant number of children, and no doubt the majority growing up in households on low or middle incomes, could only pay the fee by those acting on their behalf being required to make unreasonable sacrifices.”
Mr Justice Jay also found a mass of evidence to support our arguments that children who are unable to attain such citizenship
“feel alienated, excluded, isolated, ‘second-best’, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK.”
The judgment reminded the Government that they have a paramount duty to consider a child’s best interests. Evidence was laid before the High Court demonstrating that a disproportionality in this policy, inevitably hitting the poorest and most disadvantaged, needs to be addressed.
Put simply, it is discriminatory and unfair.
In his conclusion, he said:
“My conclusion that the Secretary of State has violated the section means that the 2018 Regulations are unlawful in that respect to the extent that they set the fee for registration applications brought by children at £1,012.”
Basic are the human rights at stake here.
Being mindful of the Windrush scandal, which has been referred to, and the arguments about inclusivity, integration and the promotion of British citizenship, we must surely support amendments that rectify this arrangement and fly in the face of all these things.
We must reassert the principles enshrined in legislation enacted by the Conservative Government of the day in 1981, and hope that the Home Office will not only carefully consider the implications of Mr Justice Jay’s judgment but use the opportunities of this Bill to rectify the injustices that undoubtedly exist.