European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:12 pm on 9th January 2020.

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Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 3:12 pm, 9th January 2020

The European Union was a subject of enormous interest to my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, Nick Hurd, and indeed to his father, Douglas Hurd, who served this House with distinction and was the Foreign Secretary who took the United Kingdom into the Maastricht treaty through discussions that we have heard a great deal about in the course of the debate on this Bill. It was my great pleasure to work over many years with Nick as a local councillor in the constituency. I always found him to be someone who was hugely engaged and passionate about the interests of his constituents. I have been very struck by how hon. and right hon. Members of this House on all sides, in all parties, have fed back what a pleasure it was to have him as a colleague, and I am sure we all wish him well as he moves on to new challenges.

It has been a great honour to be elected Member of Parliament for the constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, where I have been a councillor since 2002. Among the many characteristics of that outer London suburb is its long history as a place of settlement for those who have sought refuge in our country from persecution elsewhere. In particular, we have very large communities of those Jewish people who fled to the United Kingdom during the second world war and those Polish service personnel who came to this country to join our armed forces in that period and who subsequently settled and are still very significantly represented among our local population today.

The constituency is part of the London Borough of Hillingdon, of which I remain the deputy leader for another few days. Hillingdon is distinctive, among other things, for the fact that it is a gateway authority—one of the ports of entry into the United Kingdom—by virtue of the fact that we have Heathrow airport. Since the 2003 Hillingdon judgment, which clarified the legal responsibilities that local authorities in this country have under the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 for unaccompanied young people in this country, it has been an area of great personal interest for me because of the impact on my home area. For the past decade, I have had the privilege of leading the national work across local government on the resettlement into the United Kingdom of refugees and, in particular, child refugees, alongside politicians from all the nations of the United Kingdom and representing all the political parties that are found in those nations. Over that period, we have seen more than a doubling in the arrival rates of child refugees into the care of local authorities, and we have seen our Government play an ever more active role alongside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with schemes such as the vulnerable persons relocation scheme from Syria and the vulnerable children’s relocation scheme.

When I turn to clause 37 of the Bill, which has been the subject of comment and attempted amendments during its passage, it is clear that issues around the resettlement of vulnerable children are very much in the minds of many Members of this House. But it is vital that we recognise the strength of both the Government’s and the United Kingdom’s position when it comes to ensuring in practice the safety and wellbeing of refugee children. Border policy is, and has always been, a national competence, not one of the European Union. It is absolutely right that the opportunity to fully debate these issues will come in due course, when an immigration Bill comes before the House. But those of us closer to the sharp end of refugee resettlement will welcome the rejection of the amendments to clause 37, and I will briefly explain why.

The family reunion provisions are only relevant to a very tiny minority and to those children who are already in the care of authorities in other European countries. Those of us who had the opportunity to visit the Jungle camp in Calais and see the traffickers circling like sharks among nearly 10,000 vulnerable and destitute people will recognise that those provisions have long been seen—in the case of the United Kingdom, because of our geography—as an exploitable route for traffickers to create the opportunity of family reunion and encourage people to consign vulnerable people, sometimes children, to the backs of lorries and to dinghies across the channel in an attempt to open a family reunion route. We hear Members talking with concern about the hostile environment, but I think we have seen in the past few months that there are few environments more hostile than those when it comes to the life and wellbeing of vulnerable refugees.

The second reason that we need to be pleased that those amendments have been rejected is the issue at the heart of family reunion provisions, which is parental responsibility. It has been said by many Members, and it is said a great deal in the media, that we want to reunite children with their families. But those of us who have experience of those provisions have found that, in practice, what tends to happen is that young people are brought to the United Kingdom to be linked up with a distant cousin—maybe a teenager—and they almost immediately become an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, and therefore in the care system of this country.

That really links to the third reason, which is that young refugees who are in the European Union are already within countries that have child protection systems that are very similar or equivalent to—in some cases better than—our own. The arrangements that the European Union, supported strongly by the United Kingdom, has in place, in particular with Turkey but also with other countries around the middle east and north Africa area, mean that there is usually a very real prospect of reuniting those young people with those with parental responsibility—either mum or dad, or at least close family members—who are in a refugee camp in the system in one of those countries. So it is going to be extremely rare that the best interest test will be passed in demonstrating that someone is better coming to a distant cousin who cannot look after them in the UK, rather than being reunited with mum and dad who may be in a refugee camp in Jordan or, indeed, in Turkey.

In conclusion, our local authorities in the United Kingdom have long battled with the consequences of the exploitation by traffickers of some weaknesses in our border system, and they do a remarkable job in challenging circumstances when we look at the outcomes that those children and young people go on to achieve. The UK has a huge reservoir of good will, and that good will is reflected in the actions of both this Government and previous Governments when it comes to support for child refugees, but our communities expect, in order to maintain that good will, that there will be robust, effective, efficient and just arrangements that minimise the risks to children. Clause 37 of this Bill, as proposed by the Government, opens the possibility of such arrangements when the immigration Bill comes forward. It is in practice a more compassionate and more pragmatic way forward on this issue than anything that I have heard proffered by the Opposition. It is one of many reasons to support this Bill, and I commend that clause to this House and to all Members with an interest in refugee children.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming numbers on this side of the House, many of us are listening with close attention to the points that are being made across this debate and we will be pressing to ensure that, when this Bill is passed today, it is not just the end of something, but the start of a new, constructive and positive relationship with our allies in the European Union.