Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 84, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Government motion not to insist on amendment 85B in lieu of Lords amendment 85 and to agree to Lords amendment 85C as amended by Government amendments (a) to (f).
Government motion to agree to Lords amendment 87B in lieu of Lords amendment 87 and Government amendments (a) and (b).
Commons amendments 84A and 85B, Government motion not to insist, and amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 84.
The Government remain strongly of the view that specifying a maximum time limit for immigration detention would be arbitrary, would not take account of individual circumstances and would encourage individuals to seek to frustrate the removals process until the time limit was reached, so having a negative impact on our ability to enforce immigration controls and maintain public safety. In response to the concerns expressed by a number of Members here and in the other place, we accepted that there should be greater judicial oversight over detention, and we tabled a motion, the effect of which would be that individuals would automatically be referred to the tribunal for a bail hearing six months after their detention began or, if the tribunal had already considered whether to release the person within the first six months, six months after that consideration.
This House approved that motion but, although some peers accepted that the issue of judicial oversight had now been satisfactorily addressed, others remained concerned that six months was too long without that oversight. After careful consideration, we propose again a duty to arrange consideration of bail, but we are now reducing the timing of an automatic bail referral from six to four months. This earlier point of referral reflects the fact that the vast majority of persons are detained for fewer than four months.
Moving on to amendments (a) to (f), the Government have listened carefully to the concerns expressed in this House and the other place on the issue of detaining pregnant women. The motion agreed in the other place would maintain the 72-hour time limit agreed in this House, extendable up to a week with ministerial approval. We have listened carefully to the points raised by the peers who have tabled these amendments. In order further to strengthen the safeguards, we have tabled amendments that will make it clear that pregnant women will be detained for the purpose of removal only if they are shortly to be removed from the UK or if there are exceptional circumstances that justify the detention. The guidance will also make it clear that they should be used in very exceptional circumstances, underlining our expectations in regard to the use of this power.
We have also proposed an amendment that would place an additional duty on officers making detention decisions in respect of pregnant women to have due regard for their welfare. These additional measures, alongside the 72-hour time limit, would act as statutory safeguards to complement the Government’s wider package of reform, which includes the new adults at risk policy, a new gatekeeper function and new safeguarding teams. We also intend to ask Stephen Shaw to carry out a short review to assess progress against the key actions in his previous report.
I turn now to Lords amendment 87. The Government have always been clear about our commitment to identifying and protecting vulnerable refugee children, wherever they are. We wholeheartedly share their lordships’ underlying intentions in this regard. We have a moral duty to help. Our efforts to date, both within and outside Europe, have been designed to do just that. Our commitment to help those in need stands comparison with any other country. The UK has been playing its part in supporting European neighbours to provide support to those who have arrived, by already providing nearly £46 million of funding to the Europe-wide response to help the most vulnerable, including infants and children. This assistance will support vulnerable people including children on the move or stranded in Europe and the Balkans. In addition, the £10 million Department for International Development fund announced on
As the Prime Minister made clear last week, we will accept the amendment. However, we have always made it clear that, in implementing it, we must do nothing that would inadvertently create a situation in which more children put their lives at risk by attempting perilous journeys to Europe. That is why only those from Greece, Italy and France who were registered in the EU before
Among the most vulnerable children are the 10,000 who have gone missing. Will the Minister clarify whether those children, who were probably not registered before
I will come on to the issue of registration, which has been highlighted by a number of people, in a moment. To be clear, we are not seeking to impose an over-burdensome or legalistic requirement on children to prove that they have been formally registered, but we will need to see some evidence that they were present in Europe before
We certainly recognise the pressures that Greece and Italy, for example, have been under, and I will come on to talk about that more specifically. Equally, on children who are looking to be reunited with family here, the measure will provide a further mechanism to support the best interests of the child, which is what the Government have said. Reconnecting children with family here in the UK underpins that important message.
I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said and have looked closely at the amendments in lieu that he proposes. Will he be clear to the House about the number? I know that it is not in the amendment in lieu, but is he going to act within the spirit of the 3,000 figure? Will he also give us any indication about what will happen in the short term—perhaps before the new school year starts—and roughly how many children we will support?
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point, and if he will bear with me I will come on to address it. It is important for the House to recognise that the reference to 3,000 children has been removed from the amendment, but we welcome the insertion of consultation with local authorities, which is important.
An arbitrary quota is not the correct approach. It has no regard to the existing pressures faced by local authorities, which last year alone took charge of 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who had made their way here. The burdens of taking on children are not evenly shared between local authorities, which is why we have made provision in the Bill to bring about a national dispersal scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We agree that local authorities should be consulted to ensure that our obligations to those children already in the UK continue to be fulfilled and that any children brought to the UK can be fully supported. The nature of the amendment means that we must consult others before bringing final proposals on implementation.
Furthermore, the best interests of the child must be at the heart of any action. In addition to consulting local authorities, we will also continue to consult relevant non-governmental organisations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and other member states, specifically France, Greece and Italy, on how best to implement the legislation, including which children will most benefit from such action and how we can implement procedures and processes that protect the best interests of the child.
It is so important that we do not send a message out to people traffickers that the floodgates will be open for them to profit more from what is being achieved. It is also important that we give local authorities the resources they need. They are already under huge pressure to house refugees, and it is important that we work with them. The Minister has done the right thing and I welcome it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making the point about the messages that we send out and the potential for exploitation by people traffickers. They have become adept at using social media and other techniques to ensnare refugees and children, who then make such journeys and put their lives in traffickers’ hands, with all the horrific consequences that we have seen. He is right to underline that core message.
The conversations have already begun. I was in Athens on Friday for discussions with the Greek Government to explain the nature of the arrangements that we are contemplating. We will now urgently consult others prior to bringing forward more detailed proposals. A meeting with the Local Government Association is scheduled for later this week. Until further discussions have taken place, it is premature to speculate on the likely numbers that will count towards the new obligation set out in the amendment. I hope that my comments show that we are seeking to make progress and to get to a point at which we can report back to the House.
Keith Vaz mentioned funding. Is the Minister prepared to commit to adequately resourcing any new scheme for the resettlement of unaccompanied child refugees, many of whom will be particularly vulnerable? Local authorities in Scotland have already resettled 700 refugees and are pressed for funds at present.
Obviously, existing funding is provided for unaccompanied asylum seeking children; the Home Office funds local authorities in that way. We are carefully considering this in the context of the existing arrangements and will be discussing it with colleagues across government, as well as with local authorities. I would like to reassure the House that we intend to be flexible in our interpretation and approach when implementing this amendment, to ensure that it is practical and supports the most vulnerable children, as intended. We believe the amendment, as currently drafted, enables us to do that. The use of the term “refugee” can be interpreted to include certain asylum seekers and avoid the requirement of a child having to go through a full refugee determination process before being admitted to the UK. Our Syrian resettlement scheme already operates in a not dissimilar way, and we do not believe any clarifications are necessary.
Does the Minister accept, however, that vulnerability does not necessarily end on a child’s 18th birthday? We have already deported about 3,000 children to a number of countries, including Libya and Syria, since 2005. Will he assure us that the children who are allowed in will be allowed to stay here?
I do not want to conflate, as the right hon. Gentleman seems to be doing, those who claim asylum in this country and are then determined not to have a valid asylum claim—we would therefore seek to remove them on their 18th birthday—with the arrangements we are contemplating and which I am setting out to the House this evening. Obviously, we are looking carefully at the nature of the leave that will be granted. It is important to understand and recognise that where we are seeking to reunite children with parents here, the Dublin arrangements would normally mean that they would have the same leave as the person who was here. Equally, if we are looking at resettlement, different leaves may be involved. We are looking at this carefully with UNHCR and others.
I hope that colleagues will agree that accepting the amendment is the right thing to do. No country has done more than Britain when it comes to help for Syrian refugees. Accepting this amendment demonstrates the Government’s approach of doing more for refugee children across the globe while upholding the principle that we should not be encouraging vulnerable people to make that perilous journey. We remain of the view that we can have the biggest impact by supporting refugees in affected regions and the countries hosting them. Those we resettle here are the exceptions and the vulnerable whom the UNHCR advise need to be resettled in a country such as the UK. That has always been the cornerstone of our policy and that should remain the case, but we recognise our duties, both in the EU and beyond.
Let me start by discussing unaccompanied refugee children in Europe and reminding the House that two weeks ago the Government voted against Lord Alf Dubs original amendment here in this House. Last week, they voted against this amendment in the other place. Obviously, I welcome the change of position, but it is just that. Whether voting against an amendment last week and accepting it this week is listening, as the Government would have it, or U-turning, as I would have it, is a matter for debate, but clearly there is a changed position.
I am disappointed to hear language of that nature, because the Government have not made a U-turn; they have been very carefully weighing up how on earth to mitigate the pull factor, which still remains a huge danger. They have taken their time to deliver proposals that will work and will not endanger children in the future.
I am grateful for that intervention. The fact remains that only last week the Government voted against the Lord Alf Dubs amendment, as it was then put in the other place, which was a change from the position the last time we saw it in this House. I welcome this change of position, which is a step in the right direction, but I wish to pay tribute to those who have got us this far. I pay particular tribute to Lord Alf Dubs and to my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, who has raised this matter on so many occasions, both in this House and elsewhere. I also thank Save the Children and the other charities and non-governmental organisations that have given their support. I pay tribute to those on the Conservative Benches who have urged the Government to reconsider their position. They have done so over several weeks and months and played an important part in getting us to where we are today.
It is important that actions match words. Citizens UK has identified 157 children in Calais with family connections here. Obviously, there are many children in equally appalling conditions in Greece and Italy. Although the Minister does not want to put numbers and a timetable around the proposed change to the resettlement scheme, the challenge for the Government is surely to take all those in Calais with valid legal claims for reunification notwithstanding the fact that they are in France—
Reunification with their family here under the Dublin arrangements. The Minister has made it clear on a number of occasions that he is seeking to improve the reunification rules under the Dublin arrangements. Some 157 children have been identified as falling into that category. This is the time for action, not words. We also challenge the Government to take 300 children most at risk in Greece and Italy before the start of the next school term. There is an urgency to this situation. The debate two weeks ago was dominated by a real and genuine concern about the missing children—those who are at risk of exploitation, trafficking and various other aspects of mischief. That is the challenge. I ask the Minister to say a little more to the House about the numbers and the timetable.
I also pay tribute to the Government for the immense amount they have done to help displaced Syrian refugees. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman also take on board the huge pressures that are already on children in care in this country? Some 70,000 children in England are in care, and there is a shortage of 10,000 foster carers. It is really vital that we are able to offer safekeeping to those children who are coming here and to do it sustainably and not to the detriment of the other children to whom we already have a responsibility.
I agree that if children are to come to this country under the proposal put forward in this amendment, it must be done properly with the relevant local authorities receiving full support.
I also supported the amendment that sought to enable movement and help to pass from one local authority to another. Kent, in particular, has provided a lot of support. Although there has been voluntary support from other local authorities, the amendment proposed by the Government during the passage of the Bill put in place a provision to allow that to be more meaningful and effective, and I supported that for the very reasons that have been mentioned in this House.
I want to move on to immigration detention, because there are two substantive issues still before—
On immigration detention? I have barely started. I really think that I should press on, as we have limited time.
On immigration detention, the Stephen Shaw report made it clear that there is now near universal acceptance that detention makes people more vulnerable, and disquiet has been growing. Lords amendment 84 tackles that issue head on, by sensibly providing a 28-day period of immigration detention after which the Secretary of State can apply to extend detention in exceptional circumstances. That amendment strikes the right balance and reflects both the cross-party reports by the all-party groups on refugees and on migration and long-standing Labour party policy. It also had cross-party support in the Lords. Amendment 84A in lieu provides for four months of immigration detention, with an ability to apply for bail at the end of that exercise. That is markedly different: it is four months rather than 28 days; it puts the onus on the individual rather than on the Secretary of State; and it is subject to a different test. It does not go far enough, which is why we will vote in favour of the Lords amendment this evening.
Let me move on to the position of pregnant women. I remind the House of an important finding of Stephen Shaw’s report. As he put it, it is “obvious” that detention has harmful effects on both the mother and the unborn child. The Royal College of Midwives, in its evidence to him for his report, pointed to the special vulnerabilities of pregnant women and made it clear that appropriate care cannot be given in detention. Add to that the fact that until now, the vast majority of pregnant women have not been removed, and one can see why he concluded that the current policy was not working. He rightly concluded that the only move should be to absolute prohibition. That has been the Labour party position consistently, and that is why we voted as we did on
I recognise that the Government have moved on this issue to a position of not allowing detention beyond 72 hours, or up to a week with the Secretary of State’s approval. That does not go far enough, but it is better than no limit. The amendment that was eventually accepted in the Lords reflected that concession and introduced other important safeguards. It is worth setting out those safeguards for the House. The first is the overriding principle that pregnant women should be detained only in the most exceptional circumstances. The second is that detention must be at a place where there are facilities for appropriate medical care. The third is that there should be provision for an independent family return panel. That is the amendment that the Lords have put back before the House tonight: a limit of 72 hours, or up to a week with the Secretary of State’s approval; the overriding principle of detention in only the most exceptional circumstances; appropriate medical facilities; and the involvement of an independent family return panel.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we should move to not detaining vulnerable people at all? It is expensive and immoral. In this amendment, we see some movement on that, because after all, we consider pregnant women to be vulnerable, but given that two thirds of the women in places such as Yarl’s Wood are victims of sexual violence in conflict, we really should not detain any of them at all.
I am grateful for that intervention. On vulnerable individuals as described, I agree. I state again that our position, particularly in relation to pregnant women, is that they should not be in immigration detention at all. However, this is a move in the right direction by the Government, and the limit proposed is better than no limit at all.
Unfortunately, the amendment in lieu undoes a lot of the good work, because it seeks to remove the overriding principle that there should be detention only in the most exceptional circumstances, and seems to remove the provision relating to medical facilities. For those reasons, we will not support the amendment in lieu, but will support the Lords amendment.
I quite understand the difficulty that the Government face. As I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree, the British Government have done more than any other Government apart from that of the United States of America to help those fleeing the torment in Syria and other parts of the middle east. I warmly welcome that part of the Department for International Development budget; that is a good use of its budget, though I may disagree with other parts of it. I accept that the Government face some opposition to their policy from Conservative Members, but the Government’s original policy was absolutely right. Keith Vaz, representing the new champions of the premier league—he is not wearing his scarf today; clearly he has deserted his—[Interruption.] Ah! The scarf is under there! He said that he hoped that the amendment would not exacerbate the pull factor, but I am afraid that all reasonable opinion in this country will conclude that it will do precisely that. If we agree to this amendment, we are sending out the message that Britain is a soft touch. Also, it is a cruel policy, as I have said to the Aldershot News & Mail—[Interruption.] Tim Farron is being facetious about the Aldershot News & Mail; it is a very important organ of communication.
The policy is cruel because it will encourage desperate, tragic parents to send their children across the inhospitable seas of the Mediterranean in search of a better life. Who can blame them for wanting to do that? However, they are parents and their responsibility is to their children. It is not our first responsibility; it is that of the parents, and they will be encouraged by this measure to send their children across that dangerous sea and put them at risk in the hope that they will be able to get not just to other safe countries—France, Greece or Italy—but to the United Kingdom.
If this House is saying, in the middle of a debate on whether Britain should remain a member of the EU, that—[Interruption.] Members on the Opposition Benches should not sneer. If this House is saying that Italy, France and Greece are not safe countries, why on earth are we members of that organisation?
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that in Calais tonight there are children sleeping in containers that sleep 12 people? They are sleeping alongside adults, strangers to them, and there is nobody supervising. Does he think that is safe?
The whole point is that they are in safe countries. The criticism should be levelled not at the British Government, but at other Governments. If the Scottish Nationalists wish to take the children in and they have the capacity in Scotland, they should pay for it themselves and not ask the Minister to go to the British Treasury to fund it. Put your money where your mouth is.
I fear that the Lords amendment will send out a very dangerous message. It is also an insulting message to our continental partners, whom we all know, because we see it night after night on our television screens, are wrestling with the consequences of this tragic migration flow into Europe. The Lords amendment sends out a damning message to them that they cannot cope and that their conditions are inadequate to look after vulnerable people.
That is my first point. My second point is this: my hon. Friend Tim Loughton rightly asked the sanctimonious hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who is parading his compassion—[Interruption.] We have free speech in this country. My hon. Friend made the point that there is a shortage of 10,000 foster carers in our country to look after our own children in need of foster care.
No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman does not spend enough time in this Chamber for me to give way to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right that there is already a demand to look after our own children. As I have told the Prime Minister, in my constituency we do not have the capacity to take any more people and I will not give priority to those from overseas, however tragic, when my own constituents are suffering homelessness and vulnerable children cannot be catered for.
I quite understand the difficult position that my right hon. Friend the Minister has been put in, I suspect by some of my hon. Friends who have felt it necessary to parade their compassion. I do not believe the amendment to be a compassionate move. It sends out a very dangerous signal, encouraging parents to dispose of their children and put them at risk on the high seas, which is deeply dangerous.
Along with many others, we in the SNP have been arguing for months that the UK should take a fair share of refugees and asylum seekers from Europe in the face of the ongoing humanitarian crisis. We are therefore glad the Government have now apparently accepted that principle, albeit up to a point. They have finally listened to the arguments from the different parties and from a host of campaign groups and charities, and we cautiously welcome that change of heart.
Indeed, last week, in Westminster Hall, the Minister himself made a persuasive case for a fairer distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That was in the context of a debate on children already in the UK and was a call for solidarity with the citizens of Kent, where many unaccompanied children have arrived. We on these Benches support that call for responsibility to be shared across the UK, but we want the same logic applied on a European level.
Like others across the House, we will monitor progress carefully to ensure that the new policy is implemented in the spirit of the amendment from Lord Dubs. For example, it is vital, as others have said, that the cut-off date does not rule out protection for the many children who have been in Europe since before that date but who have never been registered, and I welcome the reassurances the Minister has given this evening. Equally, as others have said, the support offered to local authorities must be sufficient to allow them to feel able to become involved in the new programme, so that the numbers taken on represent a genuine attempt to play our part. We will also look for the Scottish Government to be closely involved in overseeing the necessary processes in Scotland and for the Scottish Guardianship Service to have the support it needs to play its part.
However, as the Opposition spokesperson said—this is probably most important of all—it is essential that action is fast. As all hon. Members who have visited camps across Europe will know, the conditions these children are living in are horrendous. We need the Immigration Minister back in the House to update us within weeks, rather than months.
If implemented properly and generously, the Government’s decision will be looked back on warmly and, indeed, even as a matter of pride—people will only wonder, “Why the delay?” However, there is a long way to go before we reach that point.
On the remaining, unresolved issues, the Government have come up short again. On amendment 84, their lordships are absolutely right to insist on a general rule that immigration detention should not last longer than 28 days. This is a modest amendment; as I said when the Bill was last here, it moves us towards a time limit, rather than creating an absolute limit, because of various exceptions. However, their lordships’ reasoning for insisting on the amendment is absolutely right, because the Government’s alternative is even further from being a proper time limit on immigration detention—it simply adds an automatic bail hearing after four months.
Every now and then, we have hints from the Government that they are waking up to the fact that policy and practice on immigration detention in the UK is draconian, unnecessary and expensive. There are occasional suggestions of a change in approach, but proposed reform is simply far too slow. Far from representing a brave new policy dawn, what the Government are asking us to put into legislation barely even reflects what is supposed to already be their policy—a presumption in favour of temporary admission or release and the use, wherever possible, of alternatives to detention.
In short, the right to liberty continues to be badly undermined—all for the administrative convenience of the Home Office. The Government have failed each time to explain why, in contrast to every single other EU country, the UK cannot operate within the confines of a proper time limit. We will continue to support the Lords amendment as a step in the right direction.
On amendment 85C, we are perhaps getting closer to a result we can live with. My colleagues and I continue to believe that the Government should implement in full Stephen Shaw’s recommendation of an absolute prohibition on the detention of pregnant women. Such a policy would not put immigration control in peril; it would ensure that some pretty barbaric practices in UK detention facilities are brought to an end.
It is frustrating that we are still having this debate without the full facts at our disposal. When will the Minister tell us exactly how many pregnant women are detained, how long they are detained, whether they were released and whether they were removed? What information we do have does not impress. For example, we know that 90 out of 99 pregnant women detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014 were eventually released back into the community.
Lords amendment 85C does incorporate the 72 hours or one-week limit suggested by the Government, but it also contains alternative protections. Its inclusion of a general principle against the detention of pregnant women mirrors provisions on the detention of children in families set out in the Immigration Act 2014. As well as retaining that overriding principle, it sets standards for accommodation, for providing notice and for shorter journey times. If we have to compromise on our belief that there should be an absolute ban, then we are absolutely determined to see the full range of protections retained within the Bill. We cannot support what the Government propose in terms of amending amendment 85C and thereby watering down many of those protections. We will not support dawn raids on pregnant women, long journeys to detention centres, or inadequate facilities at those centres. If there is not to be the absolute ban recommended by Sir Stephen Shaw, then we must have the safeguards that prioritise antenatal care over Home Office convenience. The Government have their priorities absolutely wrong.
Amid all the gloom of this Bill, at least let us properly safeguard the right to liberty, and at least take action to properly protect pregnant women. That really is not very much to ask.
I take issue with the suggestion made in last week’s debate that there is any monopoly on compassion on this issue. Members in all parts of the House, with all their different opinions, can properly hold to a compassionate view. This is a practical and complex issue that needs a practical and complex response. The suggestion that by resisting the Lords amendments when they first came to this place we were in any way turning our backs on the lone children in Europe flies in the face of the practical reality of the Government’s continuing commitment to those people. The Government had made an ongoing commitment of financial aid of £45 million, of which £10 million was directed to Save the Children and to the International Committee of the Red Cross, specifically to provide safety for those lone children.
We also have the Dublin III family reunion scheme, which was in effect before the discussion of Lords amendments and will continue to be so, although concern has rightly been expressed about its adequacy and practical implementation. One practical outworking from the debates on the Lords amendment that will no doubt eventually be agreed to is that the scheme will have a practical reality, with the Home Office official who is now in Calais providing for four family reunion cases to be dealt with per week, so that the process is properly sped up and the care is being provided.
I praise the Government for not just talking but acting, as they have in relation to the vulnerable persons relocation scheme whereby up to 1,500 vulnerable refugees have been relocated. It is not just about the numbers; it is about having a proper, integrated scheme that provides properly funded support in this country. That is what we need for all vulnerable refugees, including the lone children who will now receive extra attention and support.
This debate and this Bill are not about sending a campaigning message—we have to ensure that they are based on practical reality. That is why the Prime Minister’s announcement is very welcome in providing practical support and safety for more lone children, and why I tabled amendments (a) and (b). This is not about sending out messages—I do not think they would reach the traffickers or the smugglers, and certainly not the lone children—but about trying to ensure that following the Bill’s passage we are able to provide the appropriate support. My amendments would ensure that the Prime Minister’s announcement last week is fully aligned with the commitment in the press statement on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I understand from the Minister’s response that there is such an alignment. My amendments give the Government the opportunity to make it clear that last week’s announcement is aligned with Lords amendment 87B. That is welcome, because otherwise we could be artificially seeking a distinction about child refugees reaching a threshold of being determined as refugees, which would no doubt lead to commitments from countries such as France, Italy or Greece.
We are making a particular commitment to those who have been registered. I welcome the Minister saying that this is about those who have been resident in this country and there is some flexibility on registration. The Government’s commitment on asylum-seeking children who come within the current family reunion scheme is aligned to the Lords amendment that will now have the force of law. That will lead to accountability and publication of statistics on how many children have been relocated and where they have been accommodated—settlements that must be dispersed much more fairly across the United Kingdom. We will thus be able to hold the Government to account on their commitment.
It has been somewhat lost in the debate, but we should welcome the Government’s commitment to dispatching 45 experts to Greece to provide processing and registration. That does not make the campaign headlines, but it is of vital practical importance now. We are not turning our backs; we want to get the experts out to Greece now to improve the reception that some months ago, as my hon. Friend and her colleagues saw, was woeful. We will now be able to process those people and provide them with safety. Some of them will, no doubt, be able to come to this country in the scheme that the Government have announced, but others will be relocated to providers of children’s services across Europe, because there are existing legal commitments to children.
I welcome the Government’s commitments. I welcome the fact that the commitment made last week will, as I understand it, be aligned with the Lords amendment and will include asylum-seeking children, those who seek family reunification and children who are at risk of exploitation. We should not forget the Government’s world-leading commitment to relocate from the Syrian and north African region children who are risk. Just as we have campaigned for safe and legal routes, we must now encourage other countries to step up and join us in the scheme for children at risk. We are leading other countries in providing the international aid that will bring people to safety. Let us now get on the case of other European countries to make sure that they follow our lead across Europe and in the region.
I want briefly to mention the other matters that are the subject of consideration. In relation to Lords amendment 84, I welcome the Government’s movement on the provision of a four-month automatic bail hearing. It is distinct from Lords amendment 84 in that it provides judicial oversight not of 28 days, but of four months. In addition, the burden of proof falls on the applicant rather than the Government to justify what is excessive detention. Stephen Shaw asked, in his 60-second recommendation, what was the Government’s definition of excessive detention. One would certainly say that if detention extends to four months, it is excessive. I concede that this is part of a Government package, which includes the publication, for the first time, of an “adults at risk” policy and the introduction of removal plans. I would welcome the Government’s commitment to timings for implementing that package.
Finally, I welcome the Government’s movement on the issue of pregnant detainees. It is much more in line with the coalition Government’s proud achievement—this did not happen under a Labour Government—of outlawing the detention of children in immigration centres. That shows our practical commitment to a compassionate view of the human dignity of our most vulnerable people in detention. We need to align with that commitment, and the Government have come close to doing that. However, we still need to ask about the small word “or” in amendment (b) to Lords amendment 85C. Why does it make the distinction between
“the Secretary of State is satisfied that— the woman will shortly be removed from the United Kingdom, or there are exceptional circumstances which justify the detention”?
Surely, pregnant women should be detained only if there are exceptional circumstances and they can be removed shortly. Why are we distinguishing between the two? If the aim of detention is to remove people and detention should be a last resort, given the new 72-hour limit on detention, when would detention not be exceptional and removal forthcoming? It is important that the Government clarify that. The intention is to align ourselves with the children and family regime, but I am concerned that the measure leaves the door open for the excessive detention of pregnant women. Having said that, I welcome the Government’s movement in that regard, and I am sure that the end result of our deliberations will be that we show greater respect for human dignity and compassion to the most vulnerable.
I strongly welcome the Government’s huge change in principle and acceptance of the Dubs amendment. I pay tribute to Lord Dubs, Citizens UK, Save the Children, Help Refugees, the Association of Jewish Refugees, countless faith groups, 70,000 people who signed the petition and Members from all parts of the House who have argued strongly for the measure.
I welcome the spirit of the amendment tabled by Mr Burrowes and Heidi Allen, and I am glad that the Government have accepted it. I was saddened by the contribution made by Sir Gerald Howarth, and I do not believe that his views are representative of those of most Conservative hon. Members. I think the hon. Gentleman’s point was that children in Europe are somehow not at risk and are safe, but we know that that is not the case: 10,000 child refugees have simply disappeared.
When Stephen Phillips and I were in Athens last week, we went to a makeshift camp in a hockey stadium, where 1,200 people are staying in rigged-up tents and under blankets. In among them were children and teenagers with no one to look after them. The aid workers talked about the abuse, the risk of domestic violence and the cases of rape that there have been. Children need to be supported. We also met Greek Government Ministers—probably the same ones that the Minister for Immigration met last Friday—who said that they want help, particularly to resettle children quickly because they are at risk and are out of school.
By agreeing to Lords amendment 87B, we will be saying that we are prepared to do our bit. However, I urge the Minister for Immigration to move swiftly on the practicalities. I welcome the steps he has set out, but I urge him not simply to go along with the original objective of the Dubs amendment, which was to help 3,000 children—I hope he will still aim to achieve that by providing support for 3,000 child refugees—but to set a milestone by accepting the proposal put forward by UNICEF, Citizens UK and the group of bishops to help all those currently stuck in limbo in the family reunification system. In particular, we should help the nearly 150 children in Calais and the first 300 children from Italy and Greece to do our bit to speed up the process as rapidly as possible so that we can get them in place and resettled by the beginning of the school year. Some of those children have been out of school for far too long already, and we should do our bit to help. Of course, that will mean giving support to local authorities to enable them to do so.
My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. She is right to say that this amendment is supported not just by Conservative Members, but by people across the country who think we should help such child refugees. Indeed, people in my own community were so inspired by her work and that of Lord Dubs that they raised over £1,000 in five days to pay for caravans for children to stay in in refugee camps in Calais while waiting to be resettled in this country. There is clearly support for this across the country. It is right that we look at the 3,000 figure as a milestone, but I hope she agrees that we can do a lot more.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a lot of support and interest in this amendment, and we should be drawing on that. The Government have talked about working with the LGA, but I hope that they will also work with all sorts of other organisations. For example, I had an email only this morning from an independent boarding school local to my constituency that wants to offer two free places from September for child refugees. I will pass that offer on to Ministers, who I hope will take up not only that offer, but those of about 80 places from independent boarding schools across the country, as well as others from other community groups and organisations that want to do their bit to help—from faith groups to Home for Good, which wants to work with the Government to bring forward more places—
I will not give way because there is very little time and other Members want to speak.
Home for Good want to involve foster parents who would be prepared to sign up and work with local authorities.
Will the right hon. Lady outline the conversations she has had with her local authority about the number that it is prepared to take? When Kent was in crisis last year and we asked other authorities for help, very few came forward. My question is: how many, and what has changed?
I think the hon. Lady makes an important point. In fact, among the points I was going to make was to say that the Government should not only work with local authorities—they need to make sure that local authorities have the funding—but, frankly, should not expect Kent to take more child refugees, because it has already done a huge amount and other local councils across the country need to do more. That support will need to be funded.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees has done a great job in working with local authorities to make sure that funding is available for the existing programme for Syrian refugees. My local authority, Wakefield Council, has offered to take some of the families under that programme, but that offer has not yet been taken up. The council has come forward saying it is ready to help and it has offered places, but such places have not yet been forthcoming, because the Government have not yet brought them through the system.
I will not give way because I am conscious that other Members who have put in a huge amount of effort want to make a quick contribution.
Sir Erich Reich, the chairman of Kindertransport, the Association of Jewish Refugees, said last week:
“The echoes of the past haunt many of my fellow Kinder and I whose fate similarly rested with members of the British parliament. I feel it is incumbent on us to once again demonstrate our compassion and human-kindness to provide sanctuary to those in need.”
For us, as Members of the British Parliament today, it is a fitting echo of the past that we can stand together to support the amendment in the name of one of Sir Erich’s fellow Kinder, Lord Alf Dubs, and help a new generation of child refugees.
Like many other Members of this House, I welcome amendment 87B, as a more thoughtful articulation of the widespread desire to help unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, one that takes into account the practical challenges of doing so and recognises that it will be on top of the enormous amount we are already doing to help refugees from Syria.
I have three brief points. First, I urge us to make sure that we take the most vulnerable young people, whether from camps in the region around Syria or from the camps in mainland Europe. Whatever we do, we must take the most vulnerable children, because our capacity to help is limited—although I believe it is greater than the numbers we have at the moment. But we should not have targets for a particular place. Let us simply make sure that we help the most vulnerable along with those who have connections to and family in the UK, and so will be more able to settle in.
I am going to be very brief, because others want to speak.
My second point is that we must make absolutely sure that we avoid the pull. I know some Members are sceptical about that, but from my conversations with young men in Calais I am convinced that there is a pull factor, particularly for older teenagers—16, 17 and 18-year-olds. We must not encourage people smugglers to be paid to bring more of those people across Europe, so we must do this in a way that avoids a pull—as is, quite rightly, the plan.
My third and final point is we must make sure that we do it well. The Government are absolutely right to carry this out in consultation with local authorities. I represent a Kent constituency that is managing over 1,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers. It is a huge burden, and very few other local authorities have stepped up to help. I sincerely hope that more local authorities will now take on their fair share. As part of that, let us make sure that we make use of the upsurge in interest in fostering—many people have put forward their names to be foster carers—not only to look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and refugees but to provide more homes for British children who are in care.
Seven months ago I used my first Prime Minister’s question as party leader to call on the Prime Minister to give sanctuary to 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. The campaign has been cross-party and cross-community. Today we celebrate in particular the work of Lord Alf Dubs in pushing his amendment and being so utterly dogged with it. I also pay tribute to the Government’s own Back Benchers, whose compassion and equal doggedness have brought the Government to the brink of this change.
We should understand, however, that although we are finally able to give hope to some of these children and although this is a victory, it is certainly not the end of the story. Even tonight we are hearing from No. 10 that the Government will not take a single one of the refugees for another seven months, will not help children who arrive after the arbitrary date and will not commit to a fixed number.
I do not have time, sorry.
In January, the Government claimed to be supporting child refugees, and we became optimistic, but then it turned out that that was just a repackaging of existing funds to the region. Last month, the Government said that they would take 3,000 children, and we were ready to cheer, but it turned out that none would be the desperate children alone in the camps in Europe. Last week, on the eve of elections, the Government gave way and said that they would accept the Dubs amendment, but now we discover that although they may have accepted the letter of the amendment they continue to flout its spirit.
With depressing predictability, we again see that the Government view desperate refugees as a media and political management issue, and not as the greatest, cruellest humanitarian disaster to face our continent in 71 years. Better late than never comes to mind, but remember this: in the seven months since we first raised this matter, it is likely that hundreds, if not thousands, of vulnerable children will have joined the 10,000 who have gone missing, into the hands of people traffickers, into forced labour and into child sexual exploitation. It keeps me awake at night that some of the children I met in Lesbos, in northern Greece and in Calais will now, I know, have shared that desperate fate, because of the Government’s prevarication. Now, the clock is ticking. Every week that we delay taking these children, more will disappear into the hands of those who wish to exploit them. The Minister has the blueprint that we produced, together with the help of local authorities of all parties, Save the Children, fostering agencies, and Home for Good. He will see that with sufficient leadership and Government resources, we could take these children pretty much straightaway.
Throughout this ongoing debate, all that has hindered us from doing the right thing as a country is the lack of political will from this Government. Last month, I saw in northern Greece a razor-wire fence on the Macedonian side of the border. It was backed up with tanks every 50 yards, and it was built in 36 hours because when politicians want to do something quickly, they can. This Government could act quickly if only they had the political will.
I do not care whether this counts as a U-turn. As a result of this campaign, many of us know that hundreds, hopefully thousands of children will be granted sanctuary. That is a welcome change of position, but it is clearly not a change of heart. Taking these children is not the best that we can do as a country; it is the least that we can do as a country.
I am actually quite sad tonight given what I have heard, because there is a clear sense and determination among Labour Members to suggest that the Government have not been doing enough. I spoke to the amendment two weeks ago, and the county of Kent has been rehoming unaccompanied minors and refugees for decades. Kent has been a gateway for people making their way to safety into this country, and this Government, and previous Governments, have been doing their bit.
As I have outlined previously, it is all very well making a simplistic argument—“We’ll just put these young people with foster carers”—but the reality is, as my hon. Friends have said, that we have a shortage of foster carers in this country. What I have found saddest about this whole debate in the weeks leading up to it has been that, week after week, Opposition Members have stood up and spoken about unaccompanied minors. I do not know about them, but I do a hell of a lot of work with looked-after children, and since I have been elected to this House I have not heard Opposition Members stand up and champion the outcomes of young looked-after children in this country. Labour Members have stood up and talked about unaccompanied minors, but they have not made that point.
I have spoken to friends on the continent over this past week, and as has been said, they feel quite depressed about the debates that we have had in this House, the accusations that have been levelled at some countries on the continent, and the fear that this is unsafe. This Government and country are doing enough.
Debate interrupted (Programme Order,
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (
That this House
insists on its disagreement to Lords Amendment 84, does not insist on its amendment 84A in lieu, but proposes amendment (a) in lieu.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
After Clause 31