I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 4B. If Lords amendment 4B is agreed to, I will cause the customary entry waiving Commons financial privilege to be entered in the Journal.
Lords message considered forthwith (Programme Order,
With this it will be convenient to consider Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 4B.
Lords amendment 4B relates to family reunion and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I am sure that hon. Members will have in mind the tragic events in the channel last week. Let me reiterate very firmly that the Government are determined to end these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings to ensure that lives are not lost and that ruthless criminal gangs no longer profit from this criminal activity.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently announced at the Conservative party conference, we intend to reform our broken asylum system to make it firm but fair. We intend to bring forward legislation next year to deliver this, allowing for a wider debate on the subject. Our reformed system will be fair and compassionate towards those who need our help by welcoming people through safe and legal routes. It will also be firm and stand up for the law-abiding majority by stopping the abuse of the system by those who raise no founded claims through protected routes but do so purely to frustrate the implementation of our immigration law and procedure.
Let me reassure hon. Members that the Government remain committed to the principle of family unity and to supporting vulnerable children. We have a very proud record of providing safety to those who need it through our asylum system and world-leading resettlement schemes, and we are determined that that continues. We have granted protection and other leave to more than 44,000 children seeking protection since 2010. The UK continues to be one of the highest recipients of asylum claims from unaccompanied children across Europe, receiving more claims than any EU member state in 2019, and 20% of all claims made in the EU are in the UK.
The Government understand the importance of this issue, and it is right that we continue to debate it. Lords amendment 4B is well-intentioned in seeking to ensure that adequate protection is in place for vulnerable asylum-seeking children. However, we have made a credible and serious offer to the EU on new arrangements for the family reunion of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It remains our goal to negotiate such an agreement. As my noble Friend Baroness Williams announced in the other place on
However, it is worth noting that the UK already provides safe and legal routes for people to join family members in the UK through our existing immigration rules, all of which are unaffected by our exit from the EU, as they apply globally. In the year ending June 2020, the Government issued 6,320 refugee family reunion visas and have issued more than 29,000 in the last five years. This shows that our existing refugee family reunion routes are working well, and these routes will continue to apply, including to people in the EU, after the transition period. Our resettlement schemes were the largest in Europe over the last five years, directly resettling more than 25,000 people from regions of conflict and instability, half of whom were children. During the debate in the other place on
The substantive amendment that the Government have tabled in lieu, amendment (a), makes important statutory commitments, demonstrating the Government’s assurances to review legal routes to the UK for people seeking protection in EU member states or seeking to come to the UK to make a protection claim, including for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to join their family members here in the United Kingdom; to publicly consult on legal routes for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the EU seeking to join family members in the UK; to lay a statement before Parliament providing further details of that review and public consultation within three months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent; and to prepare a report on the outcome of the review, publish it and lay it before Parliament. Amendments (b) and (c) concern commencement of the commitment in amendment (a) to lay a statement before Parliament and specify that it will come into force within three months of Royal Assent.
I trust Members will agree that amendment (a) in lieu is substantial and clearly demonstrates how seriously this Government take the issue of family unity for vulnerable children. It is important that we consider these routes, to discourage vulnerable children from making the dangerous and illegal journeys that can result in the kind of tragedy we saw last week. Due to the scope of the Bill, amendment (a) refers only to legal routes for those who have made an application for international protection in an EU member state or are seeking to come to the UK from a member state to claim protection here. However, I can confirm that the review we conduct will be concerned with legal routes from all countries, not just EU member states. That is in line with our new global approach to the future immigration system and ensures that there is no advantage to making a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, often organised by criminal trafficking gangs. Those granted permission under these routes can instead travel safely—via scheduled air services, for example—to the United Kingdom.
The Minister tells us that the system is working well and that it would be dangerous to change it, and for that reason, the Government are not going to change it. What purpose is served by a consultation in those circumstances?
We are happy to look at a proper review of the rules. Our current rules apply alongside Dublin for those who are within the EU. We think it is appropriate to take stock, as we are doing with the rest of our migration system, as our arrangements fundamentally change with the European Union. We are happy to make the commitment to review them for the future; that is part of the general stock-take we are doing. It is not unreasonable to highlight our record on resettlement and this country’s commitments and the actions it has taken, compared with the commentary we sometimes hear. I am sorry to hear that the right hon. Member does not see a review of the rules as the way forward, but I am sure that he and his colleagues will look to proactively and positively engage with the discussion that this amendment and the review will engender.
It is now essential that the Bill receives Royal Assent without further delay if key elements of the Government’s future border and immigration system, including the new skilled workers routes as well as social security co-ordination, are to be implemented as planned. Further delay would put at risk the ending of free movement at the end of the transition period, which means the UK would effectively continue to have free movement, but unreciprocated by the European Union, into 2021. We cannot accept a delay to that key manifesto commitment. I therefore hope that, for all the reasons I have outlined today, the House will now support our amendments (a), (b) and (c) in lieu, and the statutory commitments they contain, and disagree with the Lords in their amendment 4B.
I want to start by thanking the Minister for taking the time earlier this week to explain the Government’s amendments in lieu, and for writing to me and others today with further details. Although we do not have a problem with the Government’s amendments—on the contrary, we welcome the opportunity to review all the safe and legal routes available to those fleeing war, torture or persecution and who have grounds to seek asylum in the UK—the review offered still falls a long way short of the commitment that we have asked for in Lords amendment 4B.
The review is a welcome addition to the Bill, but the fact that it is to be introduced through an amendment in lieu of ours makes it feel somewhat hollow by comparison. The Minister will be aware that support for our amendment in the only slightly varying drafts in the other place, spearheaded so ably by Lord Dubs, has resulted in two significant Government defeats, and efforts in the Commons have consistently had support from Members on his own Back Benches. I want to thank them for their work on this, not least Tim Loughton. He and my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, through their work on the Home Affairs Committee, have championed the merits of continuing the routes for unaccompanied child refugees.
We ask the Minister one more time to reflect on why adopting the Dubs amendment in its entirely is not just critical but time-critical. We debate the amendment today with 56 days to go until the Dublin regulations end, and with them the lifeline they offer, and we fall back on the immigration rules. We also debate the merits of our amendment, as the Minister has already said, in the shadow of such tragedy in the English channel this year. The sinking of just one of those insecure boats just last week resulted in the loss of life of four people, two of them children who were just six and nine. A further 15 people were taken to hospital, and three more are missing, presumed dead, including the 15-month-old baby of the Iranian Kurd family who died. It is a truly harrowing reminder that people are making more and more desperate decisions as this Government’s squeeze on safe and legal routes continues. It demonstrates that the morally bankrupt traffickers, who allow children and adults alike to get into their dangerous boats and set off to sea in bad weather, will continue to exploit people in the worst possible ways unless we reopen and continue those safe and legal alternatives, family reunion being one of them.
The deliberations and ping-pong between the two Houses on the matter of family reunion or the question of accepting unaccompanied child refugees should not be politically contentious. We are a decent and humanitarian country that takes seriously the requirement, enshrined in international law, to consider asylum claims and offer refuge to those fleeing persecution and destitution, and the Minister has rightly spoken of our country’s proud record on that.
When the House previously considered Lords amendments to the Bill, the Government rejected Lords amendment 4—the earlier version of this amendment—citing financial privilege, as is so often the parliamentary way. I am inclined to agree with Lord Dubs when he said:
“Given the time we spent on the issue and its importance, to say that the technicality of financial privilege is sufficient to dispose of it…falls short of being humanitarian”.—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 806, c. 1595.]
I heard the Minister’s contribution and read his letter earlier today, and it remains the Government’s goal to seek new arrangements with the EU for the family reunion of unaccompanied child refugees. However, when he responds, could he update the House further? We understand that the Commission simply does not have a mandate from the member states to enter into negotiations on this issue with the UK, so those talks simply cannot progress as things stand. With that in mind, the Minister will know that his review does not commit to continuing the route, and he has offered no substitute to bridge the gap between the European co-operation ending and the possible restart of routes or any new routes that result from his proposed review. The Government’s rhetoric on the anticipated sovereign borders Bill has not given us hope on that front, but if he is serious about finding a way forward and continuing the family reunion co-operation that we are currently committed to, I urge him to support the amendment.
The number of child refugees who have come to the UK throughout the history of the Dublin regulations has been far from overwhelming, but for those who have been able to use them, they have been life-changing. Between 2016 and 2018, after Dublin III introduced mandatory provisions, family reunions—both children and adults—to the UK were carried out at an average rate of 547 people annually. Come
Following the devastating fire at the Moria camp on Lesbos in September, my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary wrote to the Government, urging them to join Germany, France and others to offer refuge to just some of the children who have lost everything. The Greek Government have been appealing for help from other countries to assist in taking asylum-seeking children since last October. Thirteen countries, including Norway and Switzerland, which are not EU members, have joined the international effort, but the UK is yet to offer any assistance, and we are yet to receive a response to our letter.
Additionally, the Government have been keen to say that the immigration rules will be sufficient. The Minister knows that the immigration rules are not open to legislative scrutiny and are not amendable by parliamentarians, so we lose a range of protections when we revert to them. This amendment is our last chance to take the corrective action required before the Dublin regulations time out at the end of December.
According to Safe Passage, 95% of the young people and children it has supported through the Dublin III legal pathway would be unlikely to qualify under the immigration rules alone. The welfare and rights of child refugees should not rest precariously on the Government’s seemingly stagnant negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The Government have promised that talks on this matter will resume on a bilateral basis on post-transition migration issues with key countries with which we share a mutual interest. Without concrete alternative provisions in place, the fear is that a countdown on family reunion will be one more tactic used by smugglers to encourage people into their boats before
The current situation in refugee camps is dire. There are more than 1,600 unaccompanied children on the Greek islands, and many do not have their basic needs met. Children on Samos have been sleeping on the floors of windowless containers or in derelict buildings, as the number of people has grown to 3,745 in a camp built to house 640 people. Refugee Youth Service reports that the youngest unaccompanied children currently known to them are just 11 years old. They are at extremely high risk of exploitation and violence.
The terms “unaccompanied child refugees” and “asylum seekers” are quite technical, but we are talking about children with no one who have had to flee their homes alone. We know that we can work together to alleviate some of that suffering quickly. In the midst of a global pandemic, when we are all at risk of a highly infectious and deadly virus, the cramped and destitute conditions that house—if it can be called that—most of those fleeing their homes are unimaginable to most of us. We implore the Government to respect this addition to the Bill, adopt Lord Dubs’s amendment 4B and allow those children, who have had some of the worst possible starts in life, to reach sanctuary in the UK.
I am going to call the Minister at 6.27 pm, and the questions will be put no later than 6.32 pm. There are a number of MPs on the call list, so please show some self-discipline in order that we can get in as many as we can.
I rise to speak in support of Lords amendment 4B. I was disappointed to hear the Minister dismiss it as just well intentioned. I think it is absolutely essential. With just eight weeks to go before the Dublin arrangements for family reunion fall, we have had the tragic drownings in the channel recently; mercifully, but surprisingly, such cases are rare.
Here we go again. This is the last remaining amendment that has come back from the Lords, and it has done so with a vengeance. It was a big defeat for the Government in the other place, by 320 votes to 242. Lord Dubs has led the charge on this ably and eloquently over many months, and he spoke with huge passion. The debate in the other place was just about financial privilege; as he put it, that
“falls short of being humanitarian and falls short of respecting the opinions of this House.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 806, c. 1595.]
Many in this House think we must do better, and I find it extraordinary that the Government are still digging their heels in for the sake of about 500 highly vulnerable children.
The Government have produced their own amendment. I have no objection to it; it is perfectly innocuous. It commits to a review of safe and legal routes, and that is welcome. It is the least that can be expected, however, because it is what the Government have promised all along in the light of the welcome overhaul of the immigration system and the continued suspension or non-renewal of previous safe and legal routes. Simply adding the Government’s amendment to the Bill will not guarantee the replacement for the Dublin family reunion scheme that we have been promised for so long—despite the fact that, as Holly Lynch has said, there is no negotiating mandate from EU member states.
The amendment gives no timescale for when measures may be introduced, if they are to be. Neither does it give details about how extensive a replacement scheme may be, given that the Government’s separate refugee family reunion scheme is much more restrictive about family members who can reunite. Part 11 of the rules applies only to pre-flight children seeking to reunite primarily with parents, and provisions on reuniting with uncles or aunts, for example, are subject to very strict criteria and high evidential thresholds.
Let us look at those thresholds by considering the ability of a young teenage boy on the Greek islands to reunite with an aunt or uncle in the UK—a case that we raised with the Minister in the Home Affairs Committee this morning. The Minister made it sound as though that would be no problem, but it will not work in practice for most cases. That child would have to apply under rule 319X, which technically allows children to join uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings or any other family member who is not a parent and who has the refugee status of humanitarian protection. However, the requirements that have to be met are very onerous, and there are strict evidential requirements.
The child would be able to apply under 319X, but only if the uncle or aunt is a refugee, not if they are British or have other status, unlike in the Dublin regulations. The child can apply only if the uncle or aunt can maintain and accommodate them. That is a very high threshold, and it is much higher than the one in Dublin. The child can apply only if they can show that
“there are serious and compelling family or other considerations which make exclusion of the child undesirable”— that is a very high test that is hard to meet, and there is no such test under the Dublin regulations—
“and suitable arrangements have been made for the child’s care”.
The child can apply only if the uncle or aunt can afford the £388 fee to make the application. The uncle or aunt cannot be a refugee with indefinite leave to remain; they must only have limited leave to remain as a refugee. That is an absurdly high bar to meet, and I suspect the Minister knows it. Frankly, it is no substitute for the safe and legal routes that are available now, which have worked well and have been responsible for saving hundreds of highly vulnerable children.
That was the only alternative scheme that the Minister could offer the Home Affairs Committee this morning. He claimed that some 7,400 refugees—it fell to one of the officials to look this up on the computer in front of them—had been issued family reunion visas in the year to March 2020. But they are from outside the EU. The scheme is welcome, as is the fact that we have brought those people in. The Government are to be applauded for targeting some of the most vulnerable families and children, who are genuine refugees from some really dangerous parts of the world, and that has worked exceedingly well. They are all from outside the EU, however, so the scheme does absolutely nothing for the children we are talking about. As things stand, on
Given that, I am afraid that all the assurances given by the Minister at the Dispatch Box and at this morning’s session of the Home Affairs Committee pale into absolute insignificance and irrelevance. I have set out what the position will be on
I have asked previously for a serious replacement for Dublin III, and a Dubs 2 scheme; the previous Dubs scheme did an extraordinary job of rescuing 480 very vulnerable unaccompanied children from dangerous parts of the world. I ask the Government, as a last-ditch effort to show their good will and commitment to a practical scheme that we know works, to roll over the terms of Dublin, at least until a new scheme is in place. I also ask them to give the go-ahead to the more than 30 councils across the country that have offered places to over 1,400 refugees like these refugee children, and to provide the financing for that.
We are not talking about a huge number of children. We are, however, talking about some of the most vulnerable children, who find themselves in hopeless and dangerous circumstances through no fault of their own—the sort of children we have a proud record of helping, and the sort of children whom we helped through the Dublin scheme, and can continue to help if the Government will make this concession. The Lords amendments would achieve that. Let us not let those children down.
It is a pleasure to follow Tim Loughton. We provide safe, legal routes so that fewer people feel compelled to try the more dangerous alternatives, with all the tragic consequences that they can entail, as we saw recently. The simple fact that should determine how we vote tonight is this: if the Government successfully resist Lord Dubs’s amendment, there will be fewer, not more, safe, legal routes for people from the start of January.
Bilateral agreements that might replace some features of Dublin are months, if not years, away. There is no prospect of a negotiated settlement with the EU on this issue by the end of December, so in just a few weeks, people who could previously have reunited with family members in the UK will not be able to. They will turn to people traffickers and smugglers instead, or attempt other dangerous crossings themselves.
The Minister has pointed to the domestic immigration rules on family reunion. While some who will lose rights under Dublin will be able to use those rules, very many will not. Those domestic rules are indeed very different from Dublin and more restricted in scope, and often include significantly more difficult legal tests and evidential hurdles, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham set out.
I think the Minister knows that the domestic rules are not a substitute for Dublin, so he pointed to the possibility of a review. I thank him for speaking to me about that earlier this week; we will engage constructively with that, but the offer of a review is too little, too late. It simply holds out the possibility that something might appear further down the line to fill the gap left by the loss of the Dublin rights. First, we should be sceptical about whether anything robust enough will ever appear. Even the Government’s proposal to the EU for a post-transition successor to Dublin was in reality a significant watering down of Dublin, under which children’s rights would be subject to the Government’s discretion and appeal rights would be abolished, while other individuals would lose their rights altogether.
Secondly, even if the Government were to come up with something acceptable down the line after this review, the gap between the start of January and that replacement appearing will be hugely damaging in itself. People are not going to wait to see what might happen. From January, with the safe Dublin route closed, more vulnerable people in Europe with family here in the UK will be tempted by and driven towards the traffickers and the dangerous routes. If the Government want a sensible compromise, and it has already been suggested a couple of times in this debate, at the very least they should offer to keep the Dublin routes open for now until the promised review takes place, and alternative proposals come forward and are approved.
Finally, can I ask the Minister the following about the review? Why is there not a date given by which the review has to be completed, and when do the Government intend that that review be completed? While public consultation on the position of unaccompanied children is welcome, will there be public consultation on the other aspects of the review and will the results be published? Moving to an issue already raised, why in his letter has the Minister written to tell us that the family reunion rules are already effective and fair before that review takes place, because many of us think the rules could be made significantly more fair? Fundamentally, what is the Government’s overall objective from this review? In particular, can he reaffirm that the Government are still committed, as they have said previously, to putting in place something that closely follows the Dublin rules?
We should continue to support family unity and protection of vulnerable children. The Lords amendment does that; the Government’s amendment in lieu does not.
I thank the hon. Member for keeping his comments brief. I do not intend to put on a time limit, but if people can keep to roughly Stuart C. McDonald’s length of speech—about four minutes—we will get fairly well everybody in.
This Lords amendment should not be a point of party political disagreement. I agree with every word that Tim Loughton said. He is a fellow member of the Home Affairs Committee, and Stuart C. McDonald is also a member of the Select Committee. We may disagree on many things, but on this we are in strong agreement, as we are with my hon. Friend Holly Lynch.
When in the past we have helped child refugees, we have done so on a cross-party basis—be it, generations ago, with the Kindertransport or, in more recent years, with the Dubs amendment put forward by Lord Dubs, himself a child of the Kindertransport. We have done so with the investment through the aid budget supporting refugees across the regions, and with the resettlement scheme, which many of us called for and the Government rightly brought forward, to help many Syrian families restart their lives. The same principle should apply here as well.
We have always had cross-party agreement that we should do our bit to help children and teenagers who are alone with no one to look after them, and who have fled conflict and persecution but have family here in the UK who can care for them, put a roof over their head, try to make sure they get back into school, look after them and give them back a future. It is something that every one of us would want for our own families if we, for a moment, just think about walking in others’ shoes and about the awful plight of families in this situation, torn asunder by conflict or by persecution. I have teenage and adult children and, like so many of us, I would want them to be back together or to find others who could care for them from within our family if something terrible happened.
While the Government’s proposed review will, I hope, be important in looking at safe and legal routes to sanctuary, it is not an alternative to the Lords amendment. Reviews take time and consultation takes time. All of those things take time, and we do not know yet where it will end, but at the moment the rules change in January, and therefore it is not an alternative for the children and teenage refugees who may be in need of support to rejoin family now.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham set out clearly why the current rules do not suffice to provide that support, but Safe Passage provided us with the reason why there is so much at stake when it described the case of a 14-year-old teenage boy on the streets of Paris, whose brother is here. Safe Passage had worked with him to get him off the streets into secure accommodation, to get him support from social services and to get him into the legal process to apply to rejoin his adult brother, who is in Scotland. However, the boy and his brother became deeply anxious that the rules were about to change at the end of December, and he has now left that accommodation. He has absconded, and nobody knows where he is. The message he left behind said, “I have heard that the law will change. What will happen to me?” The huge risk is that he may now end up in the arms of people smugglers or people traffickers, trying to make a really dangerous journey. We have seen the consequences of those awful, dangerous journeys in flimsy boats, with lives having been lost so recently—children’s lives have been lost as well.
I urge the Minister to think again and go with the spirit of the things he told us this morning about wanting to be compassionate towards child and teenage refugees. I urge him to keep these provisions in place, to accept the Lords amendment and to recognise our continuing obligation to reunite desperate families. If he wants to look at this again once his review is in place, he will have done no further harm to those families in the meantime.
For the sake of these teenagers and young people, whose safety and lives may otherwise be at risk, I urge the Minister to accept the Lords amendment.
I very much welcome the Minister’s restating of the commitment to safe and legal routes, which we all recognise are critical to tackling the risks of trafficking. I also very much welcome the commitment to existing family reunion routes.
One issue that has not received enough attention in the debate around child refugees is the humanitarian issue of what happens to them after they arrive in this country. It is important that I ask the Minister to consider some of those wider implications, because they are enormously significant in making a decision about the UK’s attitude to so many of these questions. They are vital to our care system, to local authorities and, of course, to local communities, because the children and young people we are talking about in the context of this specific amendment and debate are a very small proportion of the number the UK is involved in supporting. Indeed, from 2015, we saw around a doubling of the annual number of unaccompanied children and young people coming into the care of local authorities in the United Kingdom under the terms of the Children Act 1989, partly as a result of the Government’s commitments, but also in recognition of the fact that determining the narrow legal status of a child refugee before they arrive here and ensuring that is sustained after their arrival is something with which this debate and the legislation struggle.
One of the big challenges I have always found, having worked with the noble Lord Dubs on these issues for some time, is that the idea that Dubs created a very specific route that opens up an opportunity often turns into an illusion for these children once they arrive,. I have personally come across many examples of young people who have been lined up to come here to be reunited with a family member only for it to transpire that the family member is in no position to care for them, and that young person is, in fact, simply being lined up to be taken into the United Kingdom care system. That, of course, is the ultimate destination for many unaccompanied child refugees, because that is what our legislation requires.
Although I very much agree with the points raised by Yvette Cooper, we need to consider not that Dubs is unique in and of itself but that, actually, it concerns a very small, flexible and variable number within a much larger number of child refugees who are coming into the care of the United Kingdom.
When the Minister looks at the wider capacity picture, he should speak to the 30 councils that have come forward and said they would like to take Dubs children. He should ask them why they are not willing to make those places available to the large numbers of existing asylum-seeking children who are in the care of local authorities while looking for openings under the national transfer scheme. That would enable many of these children, many of whom may turn out to be Dubs eligible anyway, to move into the care of a local authority in a different part of the country. That is a critical question.
In conclusion, I welcome much of what the Minister said. I simply ask him to provide in his response a commitment on the future of global resettlement. We all recognise that this is a very small part of that much bigger picture. A clear commitment from the Government about when the scheme will commence and what its resourcing will look like would provide assurance of what the future framework is for so many vulnerable people around the world and maintain the UK’s reputation as providing a safe and honourable route to a safe haven for those who genuinely need it.
It is a pleasure to follow David Simmonds. I have heard him speak on this matter in the past, and he does so with clarity and some experience and authority. Of course, he is right to bring these problems to the attention of the House. I would observe in passing, however, that the problems he highlights are, relative to the problems we will have if we remove the Dublin scheme, easy problems to have. The state, as we all know, is not a good parent. We have seen that not just in relation to refugees, but in relation to our own constituents. Frankly, however, those are problems that can be solved when you have used the safe legal route to get children here. That is really what is at stake here.
Tim Loughton was absolutely forensic and clinical in his dissection of the Government’s policy and response. It was an absolute masterclass that should be played to future generations of new Members. He is absolutely right. He laid bare the paucity of the position the Government have taken for reasons that I still fail to understand. The Minister said we would doubtless engage proactively with the consultation he referred to. Of course, he is absolutely right. We will do that. My colleagues and I will never pass up an opportunity to put the case for the creation of safe and legal routes. However, it is no substitute for the House now stepping up to the plate and meeting its obligations and responsibilities, moral and legal, in providing those safe and legal routes.
Yvette Cooper, the Chair of the Select Committee, said that we should walk in the shoes of those who find themselves in this position. She is absolutely right about that. I do not know if I am the only person in the Chamber at the moment who has ever gone to sea in November in a gale. Having been born and brought up on Islay and representing Orkney and Shetland, it is just part of what you do. It is absolutely terrifying. Being at sea when a gale blows up is absolutely terrifying. I remember one occasion waiting on a pier to go on a ferry with my own children. I decided I would not take them. It was a modern ferry. It was well-equipped and would have had every rescue availability if something had gone wrong. It was a ferry that would only go to sea because it had a responsible captain who felt it was safe to do so. But I was not going to put my children through that, because they were young and they would have been terrified.
So how bad have things got to be before any parent would consider the possibility of going to sea at this time of year, knowing the possible consequences that we saw in the channel so very recently? That is what at stake here. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford is absolutely right. We should put ourselves in the position of those who find themselves in that position. If we do, the Dubs amendment looks like a very modest proposal indeed.
Rasoul Iran- Nejad, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, their daughter Anita, eight, their son Armin, six, and their 15-month-old baby, Artin—just the latest people to have lost their lives attempting an unsafe passage across the English channel. They are real people, not just a statistic. The Institute of Race Relations research found that 292 people have lost their lives crossing the channel to the UK since 1999, with the numbers steadily increasing since 2013. Those statistics are tragic enough, but behind each one lies the story of a human being so desperate to escape war, famine, destitution or persecution that they will take unimaginable risks to reach what they believe will allow them security and a safe life. It is not enough to express sadness, or thoughts and prayers as the Home Secretary did, because actions speak much louder than words.
At the same time, we read reports that the Home Secretary was considering ideas such as putting obstacles in the channel, linking boats to create a barricade, and fitting vessels with pumps to generate waves to force dinghies back into French waters. There was the much-publicised proposal to construct offshore migrant centres thousands of miles away on Ascension Island—a proposal that has still not been ruled out by the Government—and the demonisation of lawyers who offer support to migrants as “activist lawyers”, leading to attacks on them. That is the logic of the policy introduced by the Government in 2012
“to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.
Not only is it not illegal to seek asylum in this country, but we cannot ignore the fact that many of those asylum seekers are fleeing the devastating consequences of wars in which we as a country have participated directly or indirectly. They are desperate enough to put their lives in the hands of traffickers who exploit their vulnerability, but they should not pay for that exploitation with their lives, as the 39 Vietnamese asylum seekers did last year.
I will not be the only MP in the Chamber whose largest caseload comes from asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen—countries that, through war, have destroyed the homes and lives of their citizens and left them destitute. If those people safely reach the UK, they face extensive delays in processing their applications, are housed in the worst conditions and are denied access to work or to public funds. The system leaves them vulnerable and without dignity, support or certainty. We need to return to the tolerant and humane society that we prided ourselves on being. We urgently need to protect family reunion and safe and legal routes for refugees, especially unaccompanied children. That is why I urge the House to support Lords amendment 4.
It is a pleasure to follow so many well-informed, logical and compassionate speeches in this important debate. In the Home Secretary’s party conference speech a few weeks ago, she talked about the vast importance of refugees using legal routes to come to the UK. I think all hon. Members present agree and all—or most—are bemused as to why she would close off a route such as this, which is relatively modest, as has been said.
The ire that is focused on criminal gangs is absolutely justified, but we push people into the arms of those criminal gangs if we close off safe and legal routes. Wherever the negotiations with the EU end up, the chances are that we will need to bring in our own domestic policy that offers young people and families the opportunity to be reunited on these shores.
I will make four quick points. First, the numbers are few. The reaction of some newspapers, and from the mouths of some Ministers and others, is a colossal overreaction to the numbers of people actually travelling. Yes, it is more than we would want—it is a sign of something utterly heartbreaking—but we are not talking about the tens or hundreds of thousands that some of us have seen in south-eastern Europe over the last few years. The numbers are few, so let us not overreact with the sabre-rattling rhetoric that we sometimes hear from the Government and the Conservative party.
Secondly, the stakes are high, as my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael encapsulated. I remember being on the shores of Lesbos a few years ago as a boat came in, and talking to a family afterwards—a five-year-old girl, three-year-old girl, mum and dad. The dad ran a garage in Syria and the mum was a nursery schoolteacher. They were relatively comfortable, but they took a colossal and unspeakable risk, because staying was more risky. The stakes are high, so how dare we put barriers in their way?
Thirdly, the objections are poor. I often hear people talk about the pull factor, but there is a push factor, for pity’s sake. Those people will try to find a way to our shores by a safe and legal way, or by utterly brutal and dangerous ways, unless we provide those safe routes.
Finally, this is not worthy of us. Kim Johnson rightly talked about our national character. I think it was a couple of days ago that Sir Ben Helfgott was honoured in the Pride of Britain awards. I am massively proud of Ben Helfgott because he is one of the 300 Windermere boys. There were 300 young people—mostly children—rescued from the death camps after the end of the second world war who came here and were resettled literally on the shores of Lake Windermere. They were accepted, brought back into some kind of civilised existence and set on their way, and they achieved wonderful things like Ben did. That is the Britain that I know and love. Accepting refugees from Uganda, from Kosovo—that is what makes Britain Britain. It is just beneath us to be finding reasons and excuses not to say yes to the entirely reasonable Lords amendment that provides a safe and legal route for family reunion, and prevents people from being pushed into the arms of dangerous criminal gangs.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for gently asking Tim Farron to leave time for me to speak; I thank the hon. Gentleman for doing so. I will take no more time than anybody else. I also thank the Minister for the discussions that he has had with the Democratic Unionist party, particularly with my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, who said that they were very useful.
I have concerns about the long-term detention of mentally ill people, who would be vulnerable detainees. Will the Minister outline in his response how he believes the Bill addresses the deficiencies highlighted in the troubling cases of ASK and MDA in 2019? I am sorry that I did not have the chance to give the Minister these notes in advance; I intended to do so, but overlooked it. Concerns have been expressed to me that at-risk adults do not have sufficient protection, and everyone who has spoken has highlighted the importance of full protection, which is even more necessary for vulnerable people.
Like other hon. Members, I have some concern about children who have lost parents—children who are in France, as Yvette Cooper mentioned, with a relative in the United Kingdom. We need to ensure that those families can be reunited; we should be trying to do that.
The Minister and I have talked on many occasions about immigration issues and the rights of European economic area nationals to come over here to work on fishing boats. I understand that the issue is not for this Bill, but the Minister indicated some time ago that we would have a meeting. In fact, if it had not have been for covid-19, we would have had that meeting in Portavogie in my constituency of Strangford over Easter. I feel very strongly about the issue and want to make sure that it is on the Minister’s horizon. I know that he was keen to have that meeting. I was also very keen, along with Mr Carmichael and other Members who wanted to address the same issue, which is why I wanted to put it on the record again.
Let me quickly mention another issue. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We have asked the Minister and the Government to consider allocating a proportion of places to people who are fleeing countries in, for example, the middle east. I am thinking of Christians from Syria, Iran and Iraq. I would like to see whether it is possible to specify a percentage who could come to the United Kingdom. I thank the Minister and the Government for the relocation of some Syrian refugees, who were able to integrate into my constituency of Strangford. They came in from Syria with absolutely nothing—some were not even able to speak the language—and the whole community came together to ensure that they were looked after, including the Housing Executive, church groups, community groups and everyone else. That is a lovely example of how things can work. The Government enabled it to happen, and I thank them for that. However, there are other Christians and Christian families who, I believe, should have the opportunity to come and relocate here as well.
A nation is marked by its compassion for others. Every one of us in this Chamber for this debate, including the Minister, wants to see that compassion used in the legislation to ensure that those who our hearts burn for are able to come here.
It is always a pleasure to follow my good friend, Jim Shannon, and to reflect on his comments. It would be a bit out of scope for me to get on to fishing, but I recognise his campaigning on freedom of religious belief. He raises again the points we make about the challenges that are still faced globally by those fleeing persecution, merely because they express the same faith that he and I, and many in this Chamber, share. He also talked about how those who relocated from Syria or the region had resettled and been integrated into life in Strangford, with excellent support, I am sure.
That brings me on to the interesting speech from my hon. Friend David Simmonds. I know he has long engaged with this issue, both since his arrival here and, crucially, beforehand, through his work as a councillor and through the Local Government Association. His reflections were interesting, particularly when he made the point about offers being mentioned, and asked why were they not actually made, in order to support Kent? Also, when we hear about offers being made in Europe, I think that it reveals the differences in the debate. The Government’s view is that now that we have left the European Union and the transition period is coming to an end, we are moving away in our wider immigration system from the idea of a two-tier approach to non-EEA and EEA. Why not offer places as part of our resettlement programmes more generally or offer them up to those coming straight from the region? This is one of the reasons why I have had very interesting conversations with the Lord Bishop of Durham about the idea of talent beyond borders, looking at how we can open some of our economic migration routes for those who are skilled migrants—who have skills and abilities—who are currently in camps in the region and have been identified as potentially even having skills that are in shortage in this country.
That is where the core of the discussion goes. We have left the European Union. Is it really sensible to carry on in a system that will replicate a unilateral system that effectively applies only to those who are in a collection of safe and democratic countries that we have now left? Yes, negotiations are ongoing. It would probably not be right for me to give a blow-by-blow account at the Dispatch Box. As we have said, if we cannot achieve a reciprocal agreement with the whole European Union, based on the generous offer that we made earlier this year, we will look to talk to individual countries within the European Union where there is a mutual interest in having an arrangement between us both.
Let me turn to why the Government will not and cannot accept Lords amendment 4B. Part of it requires the Government to lay a strategy for the relocation of unaccompanied children from Europe. Again, this would be rather difficult to deliver and is very broad in scope. My hon. Friend touched on this. Local authorities are already caring for over 5,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—146% more than in 2014—and any move in a policy sense has to be balanced in terms of ensuring what offers are made locally. My local council, not controlled by my party, wrote to me earlier this year saying that we should be doing more for refugees across the world in resettlement, particularly in Europe. I asked them, “What was their offer?” Answer: nothing—after quite a bit of chasing about places. We do need to ensure that what we are offering up is backed up, when people arrive here, by resources and an ability to make a life here.
The amendment in lieu sets out a clear path for a review of our migration rules and is about creating safe and legal routes, including from the region directly. This is not just about avoiding a dangerous trip across the channel; it is about avoiding it and having no reason for a dangerous trip across the Mediterranean as well. That is why I am proud that we are one of the global leaders in resettlement and proud of the record that we have as a nation. When we do this review, we will take forward that reputation and ensure that we have a functioning system, but this time based on our having a global set of migration rules and not on a system that we were part of due to being a part of the EEA.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 4B.
The House divided: Ayes 333, Noes 264.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 4B disagreed to.
More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the proceedings were interrupted (Order,
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Government amendments (a) to (c) made in lieu of Lords amendment 4B.