BHT in landmark Court of Appeal case that protects children and vulnerable asylum seekers

When I arrived in England in my late teens, I was somewhat bewildered and a little bit afraid, to be honest. I was also extremely lonely. I didn’t know how to meet people and the culture was very different to what I enjoyed growing up in South Africa.

Yet I had everything going for me. I spoke English as my first language, my skin is white, and I had a UK passport thanks to my English-born parents. Nobody doubted my right to be in England. I was entitled to claim financial support for my housing and living costs, which I did. I hadn’t experience trauma. In fact I had just about everything going for me.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an asylum seeker, traumatised by war, murder and rape, traumatised by being separated from ones family, traumatised by abuse on the journey to the UK.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to fear authority for every good reason, to have people disbelieving you, having to cope with a legal system which is totally alien which uses cultural references that are unfamiliar to you. You have to rely on charitable giving to eat. You are alone, sad, homesick notwithstanding the horrors you have escaped from.

And then the officials tell you that you are lying, that there is an inconsistency in your story, that you will be deported.
This can be the experience of children going through the UK asylum system.

But a judgement in the Court of Appeal in the case of a 15 year old boy fleeing persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan, should mean that children, young people and other vulnerable persons, including those lacking capacity, have an effective right of access to the tribunal and a voice in the proceedings. The case was brought by BHT’s Immigration Legal Service, and argued by Stephanie Harrison QC and Raza Halim from the Garden Court Chambers.

In a nutshell, the Court stated that contradictory statements made by children should not always be fatal to a case, and that the child’s history should be taken in the context of the country material and the expert reports which should be given more weight than minor contradictions made by a child. The case also confirms that the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal have the power to appoint litigation friends in appropriate cases.

This case has established that “a child is foremost a child before he or she is a refugee”. The Court has provided new guidance to Tribunals to ensure that children and vulnerable persons have their voices heard in asylum proceedings.
Please take the time to read an account of the case and the ruling on the Garden Court Chambers website.

Rent the empty homes of the rich and super rich in Kensington and Chelsea to people in housing need

Across the country, the number of homes left empty for six months or more is falling, down by a third between 20116 and 2016 across England and down by half in London over the same period.

The one area bucking this trend is Kensington and Chelsea, the Borough that includes Grenfell Tower.

Powers have existed since 2013 to allow councils to charge a premium of 50% on council tax for properties that have been left vacant for two years or more. According to the Guardian, a Band H property in Kensington and Chelsea, the surcharge would be £1,000 in 2017/18.

But for the rich and super rich of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to give it its proper name, £1,000 is small change when it comes to the increasing value of their asset (note: not home). In the ten years to October 2016, according to Land Registry data, the value of homes in the Borough has increased on average by £5,000 per month! What difference is £1,000 per year?

This is just another sign of how rotten the housing market has become in the country, and how rotten the ‘Royal Borough’ is.

I have two suggestions:

Why not give local councils the powers to acquisition properties left empty for more than 12 months for a minimum ten years so that they can be let to households in housing need, including those displaced by the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.

Of course compensate the owners. I would suggest that the rents and compensation be capped at Local Housing Allowance levels (see footnote). The government is using that as the measure to cap specialist supported housing. Why use LHA. According to the DWP it is a suitable measure because “The one advantage of (LHA rates) is that they are already there, so it doesn’t cost government anything to set it up” (see my post Is this the most depressing, mind-boggling, ridiculous justification ever from government?).

The other suggestion I have is to strip the Rotten Borough of Kensington and Chelsea of its ‘Royal Borough’ status. Will that achieve anything? Absolutely not, but would make a lot of us feel a little bit better.

(Footnote: LHA was originally introduced to cap the amount of housing benefit that would be paid to welfare benefit claimants who rented in the private rented sector. The figure was supposed to equate to the 30th centile of rents for properties in a locality but it has been frozen for a number of years and now equates to the bottom 5 to 10 centile).

BHT’s Immigration Legal Service: protecting women from human trafficking

Yesterday (Sunday 30th July) was the UN’s World Day Against Human Trafficking. This is an account of one of the victims of trafficking and modern slavery that BHT’s Immigration and Asylum advice team has been able to help.

The client is a single mother with HIV. She was a failed asylum seeker and had not been believed in the past. A fresh claim for asylum was outstanding but it was not a strong application. Having read the file, and following some training on victims of trafficking, the facts of her case it was suggested to the client that she might be a victim of trafficking. It was explained to the client how important it was that she shared absolutely everything with her adviser.

From the responses, it seemed clear that there was more to be said but that she could not bring herself to say the words aloud. After many appointments the client gradually got to know and trust the adviser and she opened up.

It was incredibly traumatic for her to go over what happened to her in Nigeria; she had been badly let down by many people in her life. The client had been tricked into prostitution in Nigeria and then was brought to the UK to carry on with the same work until she had been able to escape. It was extremely difficult for her talk to about her past; she felt ashamed and angry.

The trafficker had convinced her not to say anything about what had happened to her by threatening her that she would go mad and die. She believed this and so had not explained what happened to anyone before.

A country expert on Nigeria was instructed to consider her case to comment on whether her account was plausible and importantly if she would be at risk of re-trafficking should she be returned to Nigeria. BHT instructed a psychiatrist and the client was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

After this evidence was submitted to the Home Office, the client was able to access additional support whilst they considered her case. The psychiatric report also enabled her to access treatment and counselling.

The Home Office accepted that she is a victim of trafficking and was granted her two years leave to remain. BHT advised her that she should keep fighting and as a result she has now been recognised as a refugee, along with her son. Her life has been completely transformed and she can finally put the past behind her.

(BHT’s Immigration Legal Service receives some funding from the Ministry of Justice but requires ongoing support from the public and from BHT as a whole to carry on its life saving and life-changing work. You can support our work here.)

Nikki Homewood: 30 years at BHT

“It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper told the band to play”. Actually, the album was released 50 years ago, on June 1st to be precise.

But it was thirty years ago today, that Nikki Homewood came to play. Actually, she started work at BHT on this day in 1987. Originally a worker at First Base Day Centre, Nikki became the manager of the day centre in the early 1990’s – senior manager in BHT in 2003, and most recently she has been our Director of Advice and Support Services.

Nikki never seeks the spotlight, and will feel awkward about this post. But she provides the backbone for the majority of services provided by BHT. Most housing associations provide housing with a few other things tacked on. BHT does all the other things with some housing tacked on! While in Brighton and Hastings we are a landlord of significant size, the advice and support services represent a far larger proportion of our activities.

Nikki is responsible for almost four fifths of our staff, and for about two thirds of our turnover. In the last few years performance in the areas for which Nikki is responsible has reached new heights. There are some leaders who expect and demand compliance; Nikki inspires and motivates her colleagues.

Her management and leadership style is not conventional it is effective. Others could learn a lot from her because at the end of the day she should be judged by the quality of her services and the difference they make to the lives of our clients.

She is the first to praise the staff, operational and senior managers for their successes but she creates the culture in which they can flourish.

Nikki has the skills and attributes to lead an organisation of her own, and even though I have drawn her attention to such opportunities, I have always been delighted that her heart remains with BHT. As the person I have worked with for the longest period of time, I am grateful for her honesty, insight, passion, enthusiasm, professionalism, dedication, and support. Many hundreds of staff and many thousands of clients might not appreciate how much they owe to Nikki.

Here’s to our next thirty years, Nikki!

Welcoming the appointment of Baroness Hale as the New President of the Supreme Court

There are many things that have pleased me this week: the first woman Doctor, the Women’s World Cup Final this coming Sunday at Lords (although I am sorry that England pipped South Africa in the semi-final on Tuesday) and today’s news that Baroness Hale of Richmond has been appointed as President of the Supreme Court.

Baroness Hale of Richmond? Who is she?

Lady Hale was the UK’s first woman Law Lord in 2004 and later, in 2009, the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court.

She has been critical of the judicial appointments system for selecting from a pool of predominantly white men from similar economic and academic backgrounds.

Unusually for a Supreme Court judge, she has spoken out about cuts to legal aid. When the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (now an Act) was going through parliament, Lady Hale said that the government’s own equality impact statement accepts that the cuts will have a disproportionate impact upon women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

At BHT we have a special place in our heart for Lady Hale. When a Law Lord, she read part of the judgement of a case that our Immigration Legal Service took to the House of Lords that established the rights of women seeking asylum who were facing female genital mutilation. In that case, she criticised the lower courts, saying that the issues were “blindingly obvious” and that women facing such a fate were a particular group who would suffer harm because of their membership of that group, i.e. women. You can read more about the case here.

It was the most significant piece of casework that BHT has ever undertaken, one with the most widespread impact. It is something that we are very proud of and, therefore, it is with great pleasure we heard today that Lady Hale has achieved the ultimate recognition in her profession.

I can’t stand politicians who pick on the vulnerable and marginalised for cheap political laughs

Rt Hon Peter Lilley, a powerful man who picked on the vulnerable and marginalised.

Peter Lilley was Secretary of State at the Department of Social Security (DSS) under John Major. Shortly after his appointment, Lilley became the darling of his Party’s annual conference by taking on the ‘something for nothing society’, with a re-writing of the Lord High Executioner’s ‘little list’ song from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan:

“I’ve got a little list
Of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out
And who never would be missed, they never would be missed.

“There’s those who make up bogus claims in half a dozen names
And councillors who draw the dole to run left-wing campaigns
They never would be missed, they never would be missed.

“There’s young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue
And dads who won’t support the kids of ladies they have … kissed
And I haven’t even mentioned all those sponging socialists
I’ve got them on my list
And there’s none of them be missed, there’s none of them be missed.”

Oh, how they loved it. How they cheered. How they applauded. How they lusted for blood.

But some in his Party, rightly, found it distasteful and unpleasant. A few years later Theresa May asked why some people felt the Conservatives had become the “Nasty Party”.

The commentator, Mark Lawson of The Independent (son of Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, and brother of domestic goddess Nigella) said at the time that if Lilley stayed in his place as the Secretary of State for Social Security, it would be “equivalent of Mary Whitehouse becoming madam of a brothel”!

But that was then, and now is now. Or is it?

The successor to the DSS, the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) provided an analysis for a judicial review in the High Court which ruled the benefit cap unlawfully discriminated against single parents with children under the age of two because their childcare duties meant they would not be able to work the required 16 hours a week to be exempt from the cap.

The analysis showed that lone parents made up 63% of the 88,000 households that have been hit by the lower benefit cap. 55,200 lone-parent households were estimated to be affected by the lower benefit cap in 2016/17, of which 78% were lone parents with a youngest child under the age of five.

I’ve got them on my list, young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue,
benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out, they never will be missed.