As I said last night, the Government are at the forefront of assisting and protecting vulnerable children wherever they are. As the House is aware, last week the Prime Minister said that we would work with local authorities on plans to resettle unaccompanied children from France, Greece and Italy. We have said that we expect the first children to arrive before the end of the year; we have not said that it will take until the end of the year for them to arrive. As I made clear to the House, we are working hard to ensure that isolated children are reunited with family and that children at risk of exploitation and abuse come to the UK as quickly as possible, but we have to be satisfied that they will receive appropriate care and support when they arrive.
The revised Dubs amendment to the Immigration Bill obliges us to consult local authorities. We must ensure that we fulfil our obligations to children who are already in the UK, as well ensuring that we have the right support for those who may be brought to the UK from Europe. The provisions in the Bill, by their nature, mean that we have to consult others before finalising our plans, but that does not imply that we will delay getting on with this. We will be contacting council leaders in the coming days, and I have already spoken to the Local Government Association about the matter.
We have always been clear that we must do nothing that inadvertently creates a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children ahead and putting their lives at risk by attempting perilous journeys to Europe. That is why only those who were present in the EU before
We have already started to consult relevant non-governmental organisations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and member states on how best to implement the legislation. Last Friday, I met the Greek Government in Athens to discuss how we can make progress quickly. We are already working to identify those whom we can help. We have an ongoing plan with France to improve our joint response to children in Calais. We have accepted more than 30 transfer requests since February, and more than 20 have already arrived. We will work with France over the coming days and weeks to increase the identification of children in France who have family here so that we can bring them over.
In addition, the UK has played its full part in supporting European neighbours to provide support to those who have arrived. We have provided nearly £46 million of funding to the Europe-wide response to help the most vulnerable, including children and infants. In addition, the £10 million Department for International Development fund that was announced on
We are already acting to implement the amendment. We have started discussions with local government. We have begun work with European partners and NGOs to support effective implementation, and we will bring refugee children to the UK as quickly as is safe. I am proud that the commitment of this country and this Government to help those in need, both within and outside Europe, withstands comparison with that of any other country in the world.
I have asked this urgent question because, at the end of the debate last night, Tim Farron raised the evidence that No. 10 had briefed that we would not see the first children arrive in Britain until the end of the year, which is in seven months’ time. That is in contrast with the urgency we heard from the Minister in yesterday’s debate. It is so frustrating to hear warm words and commitment, while at the same time No. 10 seems to be dragging its feet. To take the first children only by the end of the year is simply not good enough.
Let us look at the processes that should already be in place. For those who have family in the UK, the Government are processing only three to four cases a week at the moment, but more than 100 cases are pending. We need proper transparency and targets in relation to those who have family in the UK. Why will the Minister still not answer my parliamentary questions on how many applications have been made to the Home Office? Why is he still refusing to answer my freedom of information requests on how many Dublin III applications have been made? Why, if they are acting with such urgency, are the Government refusing to provide us with such information? We know that Help Refugees, Citizens UK and the Red Cross already have details of children in Europe who have family in this country who we could bring over now. UNICEF said yesterday:
“With the political will, these children could have their cases processed and be here in time to be packing their pencil cases for the new school year in September.”
Why will the Government not make a commitment at least to clear all the family cases already in the system by the time we get to the summer holidays?
As for the wider scheme, I still do not see why it will take seven months. Under pressure, the Government managed to bring in 1,000 refugees under the original Syrian refugee scheme—all tribute to them for doing so—in three months. The Canadian Government managed to take in 25,000 refugees in the space of three months. Children are at risk right now, so why will the Minister not make a commitment to accelerate the wider scheme as well? Has he even spoken to the independent schools, given that we know that 11-year-olds are still sleeping in tents in Calais on their own and 14-year-olds who want to be surgeons have been out of school for two years? Teenage boys who have been abused are at risk of being abused again, and teenage girls cannot escape from forced marriages because there is no support for them to do so. Greece and Italy do not tell the children, “Stay on the boats until we have sorted it out.” Seven months may be very fast for a bureaucrat, but it is a very long time for a child. I urge the Minister to accept the bishops’ target of taking 300 children by the beginning of the next school year. I urge him to do so.
I again underline what I said in my response to the right hon. Lady’s urgent question: we intend to make progress during the course of this year and the first children will therefore arrive before the end of this year, but that does not mean it will take seven months. As I think she will recognise from everything I have said last night and today, we are making quick progress in implementing the provisions in the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Bill. What the Prime Minister’s spokesperson has said is entirely consistent with what the Prime Minister said in accepting the Dubs amendment at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday. I want to be absolutely explicit and crystal clear in relation to that.
The right hon. Lady refers to what is happening in Calais in France. As I have already said, we are continuing to work quickly with the French Government to speed up the processes. We have already taken steps to do so in terms of the existing arrangements. Clearly, there is a renewed focus given our acceptance of the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Bill. I absolutely want to use that as a means of speeding up and making more effective the processing of those with links to family in the UK. Vulnerable children can then be reunited with their extended family in the UK, which is in their best interests, and will no longer be isolated in France, Italy or Greece.
The right hon. Lady should look at how we have approached the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme—we have got on with it. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees. Once we have stated our commitments, we get on with the practical implementation. We are doing that already, even though the Bill has not received Royal Assent.
We will continue in the days ahead to have those discussions within Government and with all the parties involved, so that we can make progress quickly and see that children who have family here and who are in need of support because of their vulnerability to exploitation come to the UK. I need to consult properly with local authorities in the spirit and the letter of the legislation. That is what we are doing and we will get on with it.
Order. I remind the House of what should be clear from what has already been said: namely, that this urgent question is not about whether to take child refugees from Europe—that matter has been decided by the House—but about when and how. It is about the implementation, the logistics and the timing, so let us focus our exchanges on that basis.
Britain is being generous in its support for refugees in the region and for vulnerable people coming to this country, but because human traffickers are evil people who will exploit any opportunity for their vile trade there is a big danger that the message will go out from them: “Britain is open now to child refugees. Send us your children. We will take them to Britain.” What can Her Majesty’s Government do to ensure that we provide the support that is needed, but do not send the signal that more child refugees should start to make their way to Europe?
In implementing this policy, we are very conscious of the way in which people traffickers and smugglers can twist and interpret the statements that we make. I know that no one in this House would want to see more children lose their lives in the Mediterranean sea or in the Aegean, which has, sadly, been a consequence of these people trading in human misery. I assure my hon. Friend that we take this issue seriously. The best interests of the child are at the forefront of our activity. We will continue to underline the message that this scheme is for children who were in Europe prior to
Yesterday’s debate was very much about how the Government came to accept the final Dubs amendment. Today is clearly about the what and where we go from here. I am glad that this urgent question was granted, because there was an apparent discrepancy between the approach the Minister outlined yesterday and what The Daily Telegraph reported this morning had been briefed from No. 10. The Minister has dealt with that.
The resettlement scheme has expanded over time. It started as a scheme to support, rather than take, refugees. It was expanded to include victims of sexual violence, then 20,000 people over five years, and then 3,000 children and families from the region. It has now been expanded by the final Dubs amendment. In fairness, where the Government have accepted the spirit of the expansion, the scheme works well. I have seen the resettlement of families in Glasgow and Colchester, where the scheme works very well. This next iteration is a challenge, but there is a huge prize if we get it right, particularly as it involves very vulnerable children who are here in Europe right here, right now.
I have some questions for the Minister. If the discussions have started, as he suggests, there must be an idea of the numbers, because there cannot be meaningful discussions unless there is some idea of how many children are involved. What is the broad number that the Government are looking at? The original Dubs amendment included a figure of 3,000. What figure are the Government at least discussing at the moment?
The second question is when. I absolutely agree that seven months is too long for children. There is an urgency here. We are all focused on the 10,000 children who according to Europol have gone missing. Those children are very vulnerable and in great danger. Seven months is a very long time in the life of a child, especially one who has gone through such circumstances.
Finally, what are the funding arrangements? It strikes me that the current scheme is working well because resources are being provided to local authorities and others to make sure that it beds in and that families are supported and welcomed and have the resources and facilities that they need.
What are the numbers, when will the children arrive and what are the funding arrangements?
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his comments on how we have sought to implement the scheme. As I have already indicated, we intend to follow the same approach in taking these measures forward and effecting them appropriately, with the best interests of the child in place. We are not looking to delay, and I hope we will make positive progress in the months ahead.
On numbers, the hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that the amendment, which is now part of the Immigration Bill, says that we need to consult local authorities to establish what is termed the “specified number”. Although I recognise the desire for clarity, it is important to have that consultation first, to meet the requirements of the legislation. I do not want to prejudge the consultation but to get the numbers from it.
As for when, that will clearly be informed by the consultation, but, as I have indicated, we are not looking to delay. We want to make progress quickly in the weeks and months ahead. We are discussing funding across Government. The hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are already funded when they arrive in the UK, and there are clear funding arrangements for local authorities. We need to be cognisant of that. We will look closely at implementing the scheme in a manner consistent with a number of existing arrangements.
This morning we are being challenged on the speed of the scheme. We have asked an awful lot of the Government and they have delivered; I am very proud that they have listened to us. I understand that turning passion and heart into practical steps takes time and co-ordination with other bodies. I would much rather encourage Ministers than berate them, and ask, for example, what can I do? What can we do as MPs to speed things up so that Ministers are not on their own in delivering this scheme?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the contribution that can be made. An example could be to have discussions with local authorities about capacity issues within the system, the availability of fostering and other support that may be provided. Indeed—as we have sought to do in implementing the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme—we should harness and channel offers of good will and support positive implementation, so that when children arrive they have the care, support and assistance that all Members of this House would want to see.
The Scottish National party welcomes the Government’s change of position on this issue, as we did last night. We very much support the idea that efforts should be made to get these children here as quickly as possible. We are concerned, however, about the funding arrangements for local authorities. I asked the Minister about that in the debate last night, and Keir Starmer has asked him, but we have not had a clear answer. Rather than simply describing the current arrangements, will the Minister give us more detail? Local authorities in Scotland are considering how to respond to the particular challenge of dealing with vulnerable unaccompanied children. They have already responded admirably to the Syrian resettlement scheme, and as a result have received 700 refugees since October—more are arriving each month—but there is particular concern about how the children are to be supported.
Along with the Local Government Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has been encouraging the UK Government to ensure that the resettlement of unaccompanied children is adequately resourced, in the same way as the Syrian resettlement scheme, but taking into account the particular demands of vulnerable unaccompanied children. Will the Minister give a commitment that the scheme will be properly funded, and will he give us some idea of what he is going to do about funding it rather than simply describing existing arrangements?
It is important to recognise that we are likely to be dealing with two distinct groups. First, there are those with extended family within the UK. As they already have family here, the pressures that might otherwise be felt—on fostering, for example—will be different from those that relate to children who are being resettled on the basis of their risk of exploitation or abuse. We need to discuss those details with local government, as well as with the different Governments with whom we are engaging. Funding is linked to that, which is why we need to hold those conversations. The Home Office already provides funding for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and I assure the hon. and learned Lady that we will be talking to the Scottish Government, and to local authorities in Scotland as well as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so that this is seen as a contribution that we are making as the United Kingdom.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his clear annunciation of Government policy, and this must be seen within the context of the wider refugee crisis. He will know that in September last year, the Prime Minister gave an undertaking that cognisance would be taken of religious persecution in the middle east, and the systematic slaughter of Coptic Christians, Yazidis and the wider Christian community. Will he reassure the House that a methodology will be put in place to take those issues on board when considering the settlement of child refugees?
My hon. Friend takes me to the implementation of the “children at risk” resettlement scheme, and the new arrangement under which 3,000 people from the region around Syria will be resettled over the next four years. That is not focused specifically on Syrian nationals; all nationals will fall within its scope, which I hope reassures my hon. Friend of the Government’s continuing commitment.
As I said in my opening statement, we have accepted more than 30 transfer requests since February, and more than 20 children have already arrived. We will continue to work closely with the French Government over further transfer requests, and to support them with the identification of children who are not already in the system. On transparency, I will be looking carefully at how we can update the public and the House on our progress, just as we have done for the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the Chamber today and for all his work. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend Richard Harrington and those in the Department for International Development who have helped with this crisis, which keeps going on and on. It is important to ensure that the right support is in place for these children when they come to this country, but does the Minister agree that we must also ensure that we do not play any part in encouraging people trafficking, or in encouraging children to make that perilous journey across the Mediterranean?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the programme will apply only to children who were registered in the EU prior to
How quickly does the Minister think that the authorities should be able to turn around a case involving a vulnerable child in the European Union who has links to the UK, so that they can be provided with sanctuary? Should they be granted five-year humanitarian protection when they arrive? We do not need placatory words from the Minister; we need a decisive action plan with a clear timetable. [Interruption.]
Order. There would be no discourtesy if Fiona Mactaggart felt the need to leave the Chamber to put her device in order. She mentioned that she thought her phone was switched off, but in my experience, the right hon. Lady is never switched off.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As I said last night, we are carefully analysing the nature of the grant of leave that should be given, and there is a distinction between those who are joining family, and those who are being resettled because of vulnerability. We are holding conversations with the UNHCR to ensure that we strike the right balance, and reflect on what we have done for other schemes, such as the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme where a five-year grant is given.
I very much welcome the Minister’s statement. I pay tribute to him for all his hard work on this matter and for the work he continues to do. Colchester stands ready to play its part, as we have done in the past and look forward to doing in the future. I urge him to do all he can to speed up the process and ensure we help as many of the vulnerable, unaccompanied children as possible, as soon as possible.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the commitment he gives on behalf of Colchester. We will follow up on all offers of support from local authorities. As I indicated, we have already contacted the Local Government Association, and we will be making contacts through strategic migration partnerships and with local authorities directly. We will be getting on with this.
The Government seem to give the impression that for people coming to Britain there is a very fast track and a very slow track, which is exemplified today with vulnerable children. People in my constituency believe the fast track is when Mike Ashley of Sports Direct sends for 500 agency workers to work on zero-hours contracts and they are here in the flash of an eye. My right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper has been at the forefront of the campaign to try to get these vulnerable children in. Let us have a little bit more energy on the slow track!
I fear the hon. Gentleman may have strayed into the wrong debate. We have shown our commitment clearly through our work on the vulnerable person resettlement scheme and by taking firm action so that children and vulnerable adults come to this country quickly, while dealing with safeguarding and the best interests of the child. I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman.
I commend the Minister for the huge amount of effort he and his team at the Home Office have put in. I have a specific question from the many people in Northumberland who are keen to help. They have shown a real willingness to be a part of the scheme to bring in the most vulnerable children who need protection. How can they become foster carers and ensure that they are able to take all children in need, as well as the many children in Northumberland who already need a home?
The Children’s Minister, my hon. Friend Edward Timpson is sitting alongside me on the Government Front Bench. He and I recognise that there is a further opportunity to encourage people to come forward to become foster parents. It takes about nine months to train as a foster parent. On teenagers and issues of specific vulnerability, if people can come forward to their local councils and say that they want to become a foster parent, that would do an awful lot to assist not just with the implementation of this scheme but with ensuring vulnerable children in this country receive the love, care and assistance we all want them to receive.
Wales is waiting to welcome refugee children. Will the Minister commit to work with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales to ensure that she is properly empowered to support refugee children and Welsh local authorities without delay?
As I have indicated, we want our response to reflect the whole of the United Kingdom, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I will certainly commit to contacting all relevant agencies in all the countries of the UK to give effect to that.
It is clearly important that we treat as a matter of urgency the arrangements for these children. However, as the recent bombing of the Syrian refugee camp has shown, we must not lose sight of the main thrust of Government policy, which is to bring people from those dangerous camps. Will the Minister reassure the House that that remains the thrust of Government policy?
We are very clear that we believe we can make the biggest difference in the region, which is why we have committed £2.3 billion of aid and focused on resettlement schemes from the region. Peace and stability in Syria and the extended area is therefore absolutely pivotal. We recognise the needs of children in Europe, which is why we have already acted and why we are taking further action through the steps we are now outlining.
The poorest areas in this country, whose services are already overburdened, take a grotesquely disproportionately high number of asylum seekers, while rich areas, including the constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary, take none. What are we going to do to improve public acceptability so that more children can be brought into places of refuge and to ensure that the system is fair? It is a question not just of money but of capacity. This great burden is being taken on by the areas that are poorest and least able to cope with large increases in the number of asylum seekers.
The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise the significant pressures that counties such as Kent and others have been experiencing in dealing with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. He makes a broader point about asylum dispersal. We have around 100 councils that fall within the dispersal zones and are in conversation with 20 plus about extending the numbers. I hope, however, that he will recognise the new provisions in the Immigration Bill for a statutory underpinning of a dispersal mechanism for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to ensure a more even sharing of the requirements across the whole UK.
I, too, thank the Minister for his comments and his hard work over many months—not just in recent times. I am glad we are focusing on putting the right resources in place on the ground, but will he assure me that areas and counties such as Kent and Medway, which have experienced pressures over the last 12 months, will not be over-pressured to take further young people, given their existing burden?
I am very aware, from my discussions with the leader of the council and other hon. Members, of the pressures that Kent has experienced over many months. I can assure my hon. Friend that the new mechanisms and statutory underpinning of a national dispersal arrangement for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will address those pressures and ensure that Kent and other councils experiencing such pressures are not overburdened, as they have been.
I commend the excellent work of my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper in leading the campaign on this issue and welcome the Government’s new approach, but may I ask the Minister, who has talked about transparency, why he has refused to answer my right hon. Friend’s parliamentary questions and the freedom of information request? In particular, we want to know the number of applications being made so that we can judge how quickly the Government are acting.
I have already provided the House with information this morning about children who have arrived in the UK and those applications accepted as “take charge” requests, and I will reflect further on what data can be provided, but clearly we are reliant on the French Government in relation to assessment. One key issue is the identification of children in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk. We are engaged in that work with the French Government in order to help achieve that.
I commend the Minister for his significant and long-standing commitment—it did not just start with the consideration of the Dubs amendment—to work for the best interests of lone children. Can he confirm that the lead he is taking in relation to additional expertise in Calais and the imminent dispatch of 75 experts to Greece is resulting in family reunions being expedited and that that will continue in the coming weeks? On transparency, can the results be published alongside the quarterly statistics?
As I have just indicated, I will consider further what information can be provided so that people can assess how the Government are progressing. When I was in Athens on Friday, I discussed directly how the experts we wanted to be deployed in the coming weeks could be used effectively and could bring a focus on issues of vulnerability, exploitation and support for vulnerable children.
The Minister says that we cannot get 300 children here in time for the start of the school term because he needs to consult local authorities, but that is why, a calendar month ago in the House, following my conversations with leaders on Merseyside, I asked him whether he had spoken to local authority leaders about educational needs for children coming here. He said then that he had, so will he confirm that consultation with local authorities started at least a month ago?
If the hon. Lady looks at the legislation—the amendment was approved last night—she will find that it imposes a legal duty on the Government to carry out that consultation on the basis of the revised arrangements on resettlement from Europe that we have accepted. We need to look closely at that. It extends from the work on child resettlement from the region. There are pressures on fostering, children’s centres, mental health and other facilities. We want to get this right, but there should be no imputation that we are delaying in doing so.
I have been contacted by constituents about this issue, as have many other Members. Some have said that they would be prepared to provide a placement for one of the refugees being resettled in this country. What work will be done to take up some of those offers? If they are not suitable for this programme, will the Minister consider whether they might be suitable for wider fostering placements, given the need for them?
I thank my hon. Friend and others for indicating the support from their communities. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that we continue to work closely on this. The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend Richard Harrington and the Home Secretary are looking closely at the community sponsorship mechanism that might provide new means for recognising children and others fleeing persecution who might be able to come to this country. I hope to be able to update the House on this shortly.
Order. I have just been reminded by Mr Winnick that today is the 76th anniversary of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister. I note in passing, despite the absence—the relatively rare absence—of the hon. Member in question from the Chamber, that today is also the 76th birthday of Sir William Cash. [Interruption.] Recover your composure, Mr Doughty.
I was taken aback by your encyclopaedic knowledge, Mr Speaker.
Citizens Cymru in Cardiff and the Vale has been very clear about the need to take urgent action on this issue. It wants to know from the Minister whether we are talking about a ballpark figure of 300? I understand that he will not give us a specific number, but is this the sort of figure involved, which Citizens Cymru and the Archbishop of Canterbury have asked for? The Minister has talked about the best interests of the child and I agree with him absolutely on that, but does he agree, given the conditions that we have heard some of these children are in, that seven months is unlikely to be in the best interests of the child?
I have already responded and made it clear that we will make progress during the course of the year. That does not mean that we are waiting seven months to do so. I underline that very clear message once again. I appreciate the desire for clarification on numbers and expectations, but I underline again that we need to do so in consultation with local authorities. That is what the Bill says; that is what we will do.
I very much support the pragmatic and responsible position outlined by the Minister on unaccompanied children, but does it not assert a worrying incapacity, particularly on the part of France and its structures, for maintaining the safety and security of vulnerable children?
The main point at issue is the children who have family here in the UK and how we can work speedily with the French Government to ensure that they are reunited with their family members here. We have been engaged in that work, but we have also supported the French Government on improving the conditions in and around the camps in northern France. We will continue to support them in their endeavours.
I want to push the Minister a bit more on the resources that will be required—not just for the speedy identification, processing and resettlement, but for the support that the children will need in the communities that they finally make their home. Many will almost certainly need educational support, but they might also need mental health and counselling support, too. What resources will the Minister make available for the child refugees?
That is precisely why we need further consultation with local government—to identify the pressures that will need to be satisfied. It is also why I have highlighted the different issues involved in these children rejoining a family, so that they can receive the support, love and care that they need from an established family group. As I have said, we need to look at this very carefully in the light of the best interests of the child.
I believe strongly that Ministers have been right all the way through to say that we should not incentivise or encourage perilous sea journeys. It is clear that other countries in the region should be doing more, so what pressure are Ministers putting on those countries to do that—not least to stop criminal gangs and traffickers from being able to paint this an opportunity?
As my hon. Friend may know, we have established an organised immigration crime taskforce to strengthen our own knowledge, intelligence and action against the smugglers and people traffickers, working with Europol and at a European Union level to retain focus on confronting the smuggling networks. That is allowing us to work with other European countries to take firm action not just close to our shores, but further afield.
Will the Minister guarantee that children whose families are already in the United Kingdom will be cleared in time for them to start school in September? Will he also agree to publish a timetable showing when unaccompanied children in Europe can come here?
As I have said, we want to make rapid progress. We are already taking children with family connections to the United Kingdom from France, and we want to find ways of improving the process further so that, when cases are identified, we can take charge and ensure that those children come to the UK quickly. There are vulnerable children in Italy and Greece, which is precisely why we are opening a dialogue with those countries. We want to understand their systems properly, and join up with them effectively so that we can identify such children and act to enable them to come to this country.
The Minister has spoken about the extra 75 staff who will help with child refugee resettlement. What will be the role of those staff, what will be the timescale for their deployment to help identify vulnerable children, and how will this move help to speed up the process?
Some of the 75 experts whom we have offered to the European Asylum Support Office to contribute to its endeavours in connection with the EU-Turkey deal will help with processing. Others will be translators. We have also offered medical support, as well as officers who will be able to identify vulnerability issues. I had conversations with EASO about this when I was in Athens on Friday. We have identified the people concerned, and we want them to be deployed quickly—within, I hope, a matter of weeks.