Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:46 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Shadow Home Secretary 12:46 pm, 16th September 2015

I thank the Home Secretary for updating the House on the refugee crisis and welcome the further measures she has announced today. We have worked together well in the past and although I will of course provide real challenge in this role, I shall do so constructively at all times.

May I also take this opportunity to praise my predecessor and friend, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper? She showed great leadership in forcing the Government to face up to the scale of the crisis and I am sure that the whole House wish her well in her continuing role on these matters.

Unfolding across Europe and the north of Africa is a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since the second world war. More than half a million migrants have arrived at the EU’s borders this year, about double the number that came in 2014. Terrible images of families and children in great distress continue to fill our television screens. Earlier this week, four babies, six boys and five girls were among 34 victims who lost their lives after their boat capsized between Turkey and a small Greek island. With winter approaching and temperatures in many of the countries affected about to drop, an urgent solution is needed, so may I begin with the Government response to date?

The measures announced last week—in response, it has to be said, to huge public pressure—were, of course, welcome as far as they go. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are right to say that the UK has set the lead on aid spending and we must urge other European countries to match it. Although the appointment earlier this week of a Minister with specific responsibilities is a welcome and sensible development, we now need clarity on the headline figures.

The Government have committed to 4,000 refugees a year, although the Prime Minister has suggested it could be more this year. What is their latest assessment of how many will arrive this year and how many does the Home Secretary expect to arrive before Christmas? What discussions has she had with councils about the practical arrangements? More than 50 have offered to help. Are they actively turning those offers into practical proposals and, given the concerns that councils have expressed about funding, is she working to get a better funding arrangement for them?

Will the Home Secretary say more about the situation in Calais? How many of the people in camps there have had their status assessed and what discussions is she having with her French counterpart to progress that situation? The big question, of course, on the Government’s response to date is whether it is in any way commensurate with the scale of the crisis. David Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said earlier this week that the UK Government’s commitment on an annual basis matches only the numbers arriving in Greece on the beaches of Lesbos every single day. With that in mind, is the Home Secretary really standing by the description of the Government’s response to date as adequate? Does she accept that it must be kept under constant review and, if necessary, increased?

Let me turn to the European response and the Justice and Human Affairs Council meeting on Monday. Such is the sheer scale of the challenge, the Home Secretary is right to say that it can be met only through a co-ordinated European response. Although she was right to call for the meeting, it is disappointing, to say the least, that the UK Government failed to table any practical or positive proposals to help our European neighbours. Can we really leave Greece, with all the other economic problems it faces, to cope with the situation alone? The expert help is good, but it goes no way to meeting the scale of the emergency Greece faces.

Although we understand that the Government do not want to give an incentive for people to travel across the Mediterranean, they cannot deny the reality on the ground in Europe right now. The Home Secretary describes the arrivals as the fittest and the wealthiest. Is not that a dangerous generalisation? Does it adequately describe the people—the desperate parents carrying children at the Hungarian border and the children sleeping on the streets in Greece? Is the Government’s decision not to take any refugees from Europe sustainable from a moral and practical point of view? Although I understand the Government’s reluctance to take part in the proposed quota system, surely an offer of some help would live up to the historic tradition our country has always had. If the Government were to provide that help, would not that only build good will and help the renegotiation discussions in advance of the forthcoming European referendum?

The Home Secretary will know that Chancellor Merkel has called for a summit of European leaders to broker a solution. Will the Home Secretary today commit the Government to a positive response to that call? One of the problems the summit will have to address is the management of borders within Europe. Does the Home Secretary agree that the ability to move without checks can leave people in the grip of people traffickers? What is her view on Germany’s decision to reintroduce border controls, and what implications does she think that will have for the Schengen agreement?

Will the Home Secretary say more about the proposal for removal centres in transit countries in Africa? She says they must become operational immediately; when does she expect that to happen? Is the approach of moving people back to transit centres consistent with the principle set out in the Dublin convention, whereby people have the right to claim asylum in the country of arrival?

Is the EU in discussion with other countries across the middle east to increase what they are doing? Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are doing what they can, but surely they need more help from other, wealthier countries in the region.

Finally, we have heard today about the deployment of HMS Richmond to the Mediterranean, with a specific role to board ships and intercept people traffickers. Although we welcome that development, will the Home Secretary say more about how it will work in practice and whether it will work as part of an international effort to disrupt those gangs?

In conclusion, this is possibly the biggest crisis of its kind in our lifetime, and the way in which we respond to it will define us as a generation. We need to be ready to do more, if the necessity demands, and reach out to our European neighbours whose challenges are greatest, and we must honour our country’s long tradition of providing refuge to those who need it.