The government’s immigration bill cleared its first Commons hurdle last night despite fears the plans will force more children and families into destitution and heap pressure on children’s services departments.
The Immigration Bill was given a second reading by 323 votes to 274. A bid by Labour to amend the legislation was rejected by a margin of 40 votes. The bill will now go to committee stage, where it will undergo detailed scrutiny from MPs.
Home secretary Theresa May said the bill’s aim was to build a “balanced and sustainable” immigration system. However, opposition MPs condemned the plans as “nasty”, “regressive” and risked increasing discrimination.
The bill includes proposals to remove two key planks of central government support for failed asylum seekers. The support currently available to single adult failed asylum seekers under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act would be repealed. Asylum seekers with children would also cease to qualify for section 95 support – assistance given to those meeting a destitution test – if their appeals are rejected.
Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham claimed those measures would punish “vulnerable children” and said Labour had “rightly abandoned” similar plans when in government in 1999 after a pilot scheme found they didn’t work. Conservative opposition at the time had claimed that “all children on British soil should be given the same protection”, said Burnham.
“What was right then is right now,” he said. “No child should face destitution in our country, whoever they are, wherever they come from”.
Campaigners have claimed that the removal of key central government support for failed asylum seekers would also increase pressure on local authorities, as councils would have a dutyunder section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to support families who remain in the UK and become destitute. Several MPs raised concerns over this in last night’s debate.
Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “Removing financial support from those who have been refused asylum risks consigning vulnerable individuals to destitution, homelessness and exploitation. Many of those individuals may well have their asylum claim upheld on appeal, but I would argue that the measures in the Bill will push them underground, reducing the likelihood that an appeal will be brought,”
“That will create a wide set of knock-on problems, including for local authorities, which have a responsibility to protect children under the Children Acts. Even if there are strong grounds to refuse asylum, when did we become a country that is comfortable removing every kind of safety net for people who have come here and need it most?”
Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s spokesman on immigration and asylum, said the removal of section 95 support will force families with children “into destitution” and put them at risk of harm.
“Such a measure will also increase the risk of families absconding, and pass a significant increase in costs to local authorities who will still have a duty to prevent children from becoming destitute,” he said.
SNP MP Angela Crawley echoed the concern: “If this Bill is allowed to pass, it will close off support currently available to failed asylum seekers. If this legislation is brought into law, it will place additional costs on local authorities at a time when they are already spending billions of pounds on children in need of care.”