Tim Farron’s Speech on Family Reunion Bill

Well worth a read!

I will try to be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, because the most important thing today is that this Bill proceeds. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and to all hon. Members who, unusually, are here on a Friday. This is my fourth debate on a Friday in 13 years, because this Bill matters. It is a chance and a test. It is a test of our support for the people who need it most; it is a test of our ability to act with compassion and common sense. It is not a hard test, because this is a modest and tightly defined common sense Bill.

Let us be clear what the changes in the Bill would mean for the refugee children who are already here in the United Kingdom. These are children who have experienced unimaginable things. Nevertheless, I want Members to try to imagine. What horrific set of circumstances might have to happen to a family that would mean that the danger and misery of fleeing across land and sea, as well as the risk of separation, is preferable to staying put? Imagine how you would want your children and your family to be treated at the end of your journey. Imagine that sanctuary, and the kindness that goes with it, and be very clear that that must be the model for how we treat families today.

Separated refugee children in the United Kingdom have already overcome threats and danger in their own communities. They have been split from their families in their rush to find somewhere—anywhere—safe and have then been forced through a terrifying journey by sea and land to Europe, journeys that we know have claimed hundreds of children’s lives. These refugee children are here right now living in our communities alongside us, asking us today to step up and reunite them with their families. The Bill will allow them a future with their families instead of being separated from them. It will mean children growing up with their parents where they should be, at their side, rather than living with the constant worry about the fate of their families, stranded and out of reach. The Bill simply makes that possible.

Let us not lose sight of who these refugee children are. The biggest groups seeking help in the UK last year were from Eritrea and Sudan, two countries torn apart by generations of civil war and violence. In Eritrea, boys can be conscripted into the army from the age ​of 16, sent off to kill and be killed at the whim of their Government. They are sent away from their families as child conscripts to serve wherever they are posted, cut off from home when they are barely high school age. In Sudan, hundreds of thousands of families are starved of food and basic medical supplies, and are at the mercy of warring factions on all sides. For many parents and their children, this is how ordinary life has been for years. These are children who have started life with the worst possible deal. Let us today give them a better deal.

The Bill will not just assert the rights of children to sponsor their families to join them, which is itself long overdue, it will bring immigration rules into line with real life. The rules need to be as flexible as families themselves. That parents can be reunited with some but not all of their children, and younger siblings can be brought to safety but their older sisters and brothers may be left behind, are shocking anomalies. At the moment, the rules obsess over age. If a child falls the wrong side of their 18th birthday when their parents become refugees, the parents have no right to bring them here. They will be left in danger. Can we agree that common sense and compassion should take the place of pedantry?

This is not a question of age, but of family. It is difficult to imagine anything more agonising for a parent than to know that they can keep some of their children safe but not all of them. It is ludicrous that that should be in the immigration rules and I welcome the commitment in the Bill to change them. Common sense is missing when it comes to the Home Office stopping any specialist support, as if reuniting refugee families is simple and straightforward. I disagree, of course. Those families need specialist support. I hope that the Bill, and the debate on it, will help us to take another look at the legal aid available when refugees are trying to reunite across continents and war zones.

It is not a simple process when it involves DNA testing and legal wrangling over birth certificates. Many Members will have seen in their constituency surgeries just how complex it can become. Leaving some of the most vulnerable people in our society to navigate the system on their own is deeply unfair.

There is one last reason to commend this Bill: doing the right thing by refugee families just happens also to mean that we do the right thing by our country’s future. After the horrors that these children have endured and escaped from, I want us to think not just of the pain of the past but of the potential of what could come next. These kids are not just the products of their horrific experiences; they will also become part of our shared future. It is in everybody’s interest that refugee children head off into their adult lives confident and integrated into British society, committed to making the most of ​the opportunities ahead. We all know that the kindest and most effective way of making the best of their futures is to reunite them with their families. So let us pass this test, dismiss the excuses and do what is right—support this Bill.



The initial information is coming out on this, and the first can be accessed here.

The situation will change over the next few weeks, so we will try to keep this updated.

Some initial thoughts on what is proposed.


  • That the Home Office is saying there will be very large areas that will be put out to tender. There is no way that smaller, and more local, organisations, or indeed groups of small organisations will be able to tender for the contracts.
  • That inspection of property to ensure compliance with accommodation standards is not going to include talking to asylum seekers in the property, is not going to be done by an organisation independent of the housing provider, and is not going to be independently verified.
  • It is a detail, so not yet known if inspection will include checking the inventory.
  • Whilst there is going to be safeguarding training for housing officers, it does not say that it will include training and support for all staff of accommodation providers dealing with service users around those who are vulnerable in any way. This includes specific issues around sexual abuse, sexuality, torture survivors, and mental health. The training also needs to include awareness of cultural, language and faith issues. All staff, including those who are in the accommodation to carry out repairs, need to have this awareness training.
  • There is nothing to tackle house sharing by people with different backgrounds, that can cause problems for many, however hard they try.
  • There is no funding for local authorities or the voluntary sector to support the work that they do.That there will still be forced bedroom sharing between unrelated adults.


  • About the inventory.
  • It says there should be adequate cleaning equipment, but only brooms mentioned
  • About some services like orientation for new arrivals. Whilst it is says it will be better, there is no mention as to how. On arrival into a new area, and new home, there is the need for good signposting for essential services such as GPs and the Post Office, as well as support such as given at advice centres and drop ins, and places of worship, ethnic shops etc. This needs to be given in person, not just pointed to whilst in a van, and in a language understood by the new arrival. Leaflets should only be to back up such information.
  • They say that “vulnerable” people will not have to share, but they have no definition of what is meant by vulnerable, and it will be dealt with on case by case. There is going to be infinite wrangling on this, and it is going to mean that sharing will have to take place before the argument as to what problems are caused take place.


  • That there will still be forced bedroom sharing between unrelated adults.
  • They say that “vulnerable” people will not have to share, but they have no definition of what is meant by vulnerable, and it will be dealt with on case by case. There is going to be infinite wrangling on this, and it is going to mean that sharing will have to take place before the argument as to what problems are caused take place.


  • ‘Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility Service (AIRE)’, which will integrate advice and guidance services into a single, nationally operated end-to-end service, and provide a single point of contact for Service User complaints and issues.
  • The service will also contain requirements for the provider to support Service Users (as asylum seekers in accommodation are called) as they move out of the asylum support system, either into mainstream services or returning to their home country.

This could be good, separating out provision of welfare services from providing accommodation, and resulting in more and better individual support.

It also could be good that there will be defined support for whose support ends if they have been given leave to remain and need to find housing, get a job and/or claim benefits. Or if they have to leave to return to country of origin. There is the possibility of it putting an end to destitution at this critical time, but will need to be carefully monitored to ensure that it actually does.



Please sign the petition to the Home Secretary to support Stephen’s appeal against the original decision to send him back to Vietnam. It is at, has been promoted by 38 Degrees and so far has 89,958 signatures.

Every Child Protected Against Trafficking, ECPAT, is using this case to highlight the awful problems around children being used as slaves in this way, and there is a Guardian article here too.

The least we can do in the UK is not return young people like Stephen back to the place where they have no family and in danger of being captured again.

One of our member writes :

He is a remarkable young man, not because what he has experienced, but because of what he is. He is graceful, intelligent and kind. Not at all angry, resentful or bitter, which many of us might have become, if we’d been he.

Stephen talked about his life at the November Durham Diocesan Synod.

He was born in Vietnam. His only surviving relative died when he was 8. He lived on the streets and survived as best he could. He was picked up by a criminal gang when he was 10 and at 16, trafficked, as a slave, to the UK. Here he was locked up, enslaved, in various different cannabis farms until the police busted the one where he was. He was fostered into a clergy family in Shildon. A life of abuse, fear, beatings, cruelty and isolation was transformed. His foster sister describes him as an incredible person, one of the kindest and most helpful, sympathetic and humble people she has ever met. He has reclaimed his life, had a basic education and become a member of a welcoming community. He has become a Christian, a factor which places him at risk of state persecution in Vietnam. He wants to be a chef.

Now he is 19 year old, Stephen is faced with the prospect of being returned to Vietnam, where he has no one and nothing. Like thousands of child victims of modern slavery, he needs long-term support to recover from abuse and rebuild his life.

The Home Secretary will decide his fate on 5th Feb. He wants to stay here, with his family, with the support he has and needs and where he will be a contributing member of our society. “He needs to stay in my family, a family who love and care about him. We can’t loose this case”, says his sister.




We are grateful for the watchful eye of Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords in protecting our liberties, and working on the fine detail of legislation such as this.

Baroness Sally Hamwee writes:

The Data Protection Bill is making its way through Parliament.  It provides rights for data subjects (you and me) to protect us from the misuse of our personal data.  However, there is an exemption for the Home Office when it processes data for “the maintenance of effective immigration control, or the investigation or detection of activities that would undermine the maintenance of immigration control” (the latter seems to me to allow for great big fishing expeditions). Personal data – information – is at the heart of pretty much all refugee and asylum applications, and the Information Commissioner says that the majority of complaints she receives are from lawyers working on these cases. Now, suddenly, it has become very relevant to the 3 million EU citizens in the UK, whose position in the future depends on correct data.  It’s difficult to ensure the Home Office has correct data if you can’t find out what data they have.

The Liberal Democrats, led by Lord Tim Clement-Jones with Lord Brian Paddick and me, opposed the exemption.  We argued, among other things, that immigration offences attract exemptions as they are criminal offences, but the Government would not agree our amendment to the Bill, and though Labour made some sympathetic noises when I called a vote they abstained – so another honourable defeat for the Lib Dems, but not an issue we will forget about.



Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, Baroness Sally Hamwee writes:

Most cultures recognise the importance of family, not just at significant dates in the calendar but for day to day support, both practical and emotional. Our culture certainly does, but not in every context. Recently a number of parliamentarians heard from two teenage refugees who know what it’s like to be separated from their family: pain, stress, worry about the safety of loved ones.

Maya and Khalil represented the many refugees whose stories are hard to hear without emotion. Like almost every other refugee I’ve met, people who have often survived the most extreme experiences, they talked about how keen they are to get an education and how they are determined to contribute to society: model citizens, who have contended with everything that being a refugee means, and separated from family too.

Shortly before the Christmas recess the House of Lords gave a second reading to the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, my private member’s bill which would help more refugee families be reunited. Currently, under the UK’s rules adult refugees are able to sponsor only their very closest relatives – their partners and children under the age of 18 – to join them in the UK. (There is some discretion when the circumstances are exceptional, but what’s “exceptional” is the situation, not people’s individual circumstances.) The recognition of family does not reflect reality.

My bill would expand the definition of family. For example, under the current rules, refugees are not automatically able to bring their adult children to join them, even if that means leaving a 19 year-old daughter, or son, alone in the middle of a warzone. This can present the invidious choice of leaving some family members behind, or putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers and traffickers. A young man who has reached the UK may have lost the whole of his family in war, apart from a brother of 16, but the siblings are left separated.

The bill would also allow refugee children in the UK to sponsor their closest family to join them. The UK is almost alone within Europe in not allowing children who our Government has said are in need of refugee protection to be joined by family members. Despite accepting that it is not safe for these children to return home, the Government prevents them from being with their parents, forcing them to grow up in a new country without the support of their family.

There was support from right round the House in the debate, with the largest representation from the Liberal Democrats. There was a splendid speech from Lord Kerr (he of the article 50 authorship) about the implausibility of the Government’s argument that we would create a “pull” factor if we allowed parents to follow their child to the UK. (The debate was on 15 December, and you can read it here on Hansard )

Sadly, but as I’d expected, the Minister made it clear that the Government would not support the Bill, largely because there was no need for primary legislation; “we already have a comprehensive framework to provide safe and legal routes for family to reunite here”. The Bill may eventually make it through the Lords and into the Commons, where they are more brutal with private members’ bills. And there is a similar bill introduced by Angus MacNeil, SNP, which is due to start in mid-March (subject to Commons’ brutality). This is all part of a long process, both on changing our Rules, and on applying them in practice.

The points made in the debate added up to a loud, clear call on the Government to amend the UK’s rules to allow more refugee families to be reunited; to better reflect the reality for families separated by war and persecution; and to accept that families belong together.

Baroness Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs and Immigration

Write for Rights campaign for YOU to do

We are very pleased to hear from Amnesty International that indefinite detention for immigration purposes has been chosen for their Write for Rights campaign and they are asking us to send a card to a UK immigration detainee.  There are details here

Please do send a card to give the recipient detainee some hope and to support the campaign to end indefinite detention and to use alternative case work in the community instead of detention. The suggested message is

Dear friend, You are not forgotten. Amnesty International UK and its partners are calling for the Government to introduce a time limit for immigration detention. We support your aspirations for freedom, dignity and a safe place to live.

You can choose the type of card, and you can add your name, but you advised not to include your address.

If you send the card (s) to Amnesty International, they will send to Individuals at Risk, Amnesty International UK, Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard London EC2A 3EA