Opposition Day — [19th Allotted Day] — UNHCR Syrian Refugees Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 29th January 2014.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:33 pm, 29th January 2014

This is a really good day for Parliament. Since 2010, I have often been asked whether it is frustrating to be in opposition. This is one of those days that I can say, “Well, sometimes in opposition you can achieve something.” That has been shown by the arguments made during the past 10 days.

Those arguments have also been made by Government Members. I pay tribute to Mark Pritchard for how he spoke last week, and to Sir Menzies Campbell. They have contributed to the groundswell of opinion that has made the Government move their position. I welcome that, and I think that they have done the right thing.

We have a superb record of aid in the region. That is acknowledged on both sides of the House. I am sure that the Secretary of State for International Development will expand on that when she sums up. One thing remains that needs to be clarified. In opening the debate, the Home Secretary made much of the distinction between the programme that she is seeking to implement and the UNHCR programme. However, that is a distinction without a difference. I agree with the Home Secretary that the most important element is the response in the region, but in trying to differentiate her scheme from that of the UN, she said that she did not intend to subscribe to a quota scheme. However, the UN programme is not a quota scheme, as she knows. She needs to establish why, other than for political surface argument, her scheme is different from what is offered by the flexibility of the UNHCR scheme. She has manifestly failed to do that.

For every refugee that we take into the UK for resettlement, it will be life changing. To give one case from my constituency, an Iraqi woman sought the assistance of my office in bringing her sister’s family to the UK. They fled Iraq and went to Syria in 2008 when the husband was killed. Before they could be safely transferred to the UK, the youngest daughter tragically died of an illness that could not be treated in Damascus because of what was going on there. I am delighted that, under the gateway programme, the family have been transferred safely to the UK for resettlement and are rebuilding their lives in Manchester. That is wonderful. There must be no confusion between the UN gateway process, which we have always been a part of and is our normal process for admitting refugees, and what is being embarked upon here. For the torture victims, abandoned children and other vulnerable refugees to whom the Government have agreed to offer sanctuary, time is of the essence.

I have one remaining question. What was it that persuaded the Home Secretary that allowing a few hundred Syrian refugees into this country was not tokenism, which the Government maintained it was last week? Was it the images of the disabled children in refugee camps, was it the tragic stories of rape victims, or was it the prospect of losing a vote in this House?