Urgent rethink needed on asylum policy

The passage into law of the oddly-titled asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004 almost totally ignored the widespread opposition raised – especially to clause 7 of the bill, now section 9 of the act, which threatened to split children from their parents.

On one level, section 9 simply inserts a clause into the earlier 2002 legislation in order that families with children can be deprived of housing and basic support if their initial asylum claim is refused. It is being “piloted” by the government in Greater Manchester, west Yorkshire and north London.

But on another level, practical implementation of the policy is inhumane. Encouraging people to “volunteer” to go back to the original country from which they have fled, or face being made destitute, being thrown out on the streets and having their children taken into care is making them an offer they cannot refuse. Far from a “choice”, this is cruelly blackmailing families into leaving the country.

Worst of all, it brings increased anxiety to people who are already frightened. Having come to this country to seek shelter, away from persecution, they face incredulous courts that don’t believe what has happened to them and endure a process of removal of (already limited) benefits and housing support.

Legally, the issue is incredibly complicated. On a national level, there is the immigration law which seeks to deprive people of support. But on a local level there is a raft of laws that have been introduced by all governments over 50 years of developing the welfare state which give local authorities both duties and powers to provide support.

If councils are forced to make a family destitute and take their children into care, they may have to deprive very young (sometimes breastfeeding) babies of the support of their parents – and it will also cost them more than keeping the family together.

But if they keep the family together and support their living expenses, they run the risk of the home secretary rushing up the motorway to take them to court for not implementing his deportation directions.

In the first asylum support appeal hearing, the adjudicator threw the Home Office’s case out, as it had not followed its own procedures. The second time, although nothing had changed, a different adjudicator was more forgiving of the Home Office’s errors. It was like they were getting the umpire to call “no-ball” until eventually the bowler could get one to hit the stumps.

Human rights laws – especially articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, now adopted into the UK’s Human Rights Act – should guarantee these families the right to family life, free of degrading treatment, and should see the whole family kept together as the best way of ensuring the welfare of the child.

The truth is that this section 9 “pilot” is inhumane, both in its creation and its implementation. People have fled persecution and need our support. Social workers have been trained to keep loving, caring families together, not spilt them up. The 10 councils in Greater Manchester, the councils in Yorkshire and Humberside, the British Association of Social Workers, the Association of Directors of Social Services, and the children’s commissioner have all asked the government to think again. Even 87% of people polled by the Manchester Evening News voted in favour of councils opposing section 9.

This is not just some academic legal debate. We are already beginning to see the human casualties of section 9, with at least one family in Rochdale evicted as a result. What matters is the situation of these families themselves. They need to be able to live and work in a borough where all the local communities and services can truly say “we welcome refugees”.

 John Nicholson is practice manager of the Bury Law Centre

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