Middle East and North Africa — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:51 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 9:51 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, this has been a vital debate, and I am glad that the Government agreed to table it. I know that this required some distinct encouragement from my noble friends, including my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness. It is surely not by chance that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, chose this important debate for his valedictory speech. I thank him for his life’s contribution to public service, not least in this House.

Contributions have been of a very high order. The Minister laid out clearly the Government’s position in her wide-ranging speech at the beginning of the debate, and I thank her for that. I hope that when she replies, she will do her very best, as I am sure she will, to answer all the main questions and themes that have been raised, with the possible exception of the most technical questions. It is less useful in terms of how this House operates to receive a letter some time later, copied though it might be to the Lords Library, responding to a debate. It is far better and more transparent to have the answers in Hansard, easily accessible. I am sure that she and her wonderful officials will endeavour to assist us in this regard.

High on the news agenda this summer have been those whom some have termed “swarms” of migrants or “marauding” migrants: the terrible scenes of overcrowded boats plying their way across the Mediterranean. We were shown the appalling sight of the little boy lying face down on the Turkish beach. I could hardly bear to look at him, or his smiling face or that of his brother in earlier photos. I think of his poor mother, who could not swim and did not want to take a boat at all. How desperate she must have been. I think of the Canadians who refused his family asylum.

We have to put a human face on refugees, to recognise that they are as us and our own children. Our common humanity was emphasised so effectively by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and my noble friend Lord Roberts. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in her extraordinary speech, injected great passion and urgency into this debate. I hope that we have now moved beyond the use of words such as “swarm” and “marauding”, but are we seeing an effective answer to a hugely pressing crisis?

We know that the refugees are from war-torn and desperately fragile states: above all, at the moment, Syria, but also, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has pointed out, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. My noble friend Lady Tonge and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, emphasised the particular plight of Palestinians, so many of whom have spent their lives in camps. The people traffickers do not care about those whom they traffic. Many die and many women are raped. Supporting development in fragile states has never been more important. In 2004, the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change—of which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was a notable member—rightly pointed out in its report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility,that, as I often quote:

“Development and security are inextricably linked. A more secure world is only possible if poor countries are given a real chance to develop. Extreme poverty and infectious diseases threaten many people directly, but they also provide a fertile breeding-ground for other threats, including civil conflict”.

Is that not crystal clear today?

Under the coalition Government, the UK finally met its commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid. Liberal Democrats Michael Moore in the Commons and Jeremy Purvis—my noble friend Lord Purvis—in the Lords then ensured that this was put into law, with Royal Assent on the last day of the last Session. I am very glad that we did that but the UN statement also speaks of the necessity of countries working together for international action, with engagement through the UN not only on long-term development and security but also, in this instance, on seeking a political solution in the Middle East. The noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Desai, and others made very clear the necessity for such international action, which is so lacking in the United Kingdom’s approach. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, knows a thing or two about conflict and refugees. She rightly argued that the current policy is not working and that the UK must engage more at the UN. However, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, have possibly different views on military action in this instance. My noble friend Lord Greaves showed how complex this is.

Right on our doorstep, are we working with our EU partners? Clearly not. Here we have been very laggardly, as so many have made clear. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, demanded an answer. We must hear that. To tackle the crisis in Europe and the war in Syria, it is critical that the UK works with our EU partners so that we play a central role as decisions are made. The Government’s total reluctance to do so not only damages our reputation but limits our ability to shape the EU reaction. It limits what we are doing to help those fleeing the terrible situation in Syria, as well as jeopardises our later campaign on the EU referendum, as my noble friend Lord Ashdown also emphasised. How can the Government thus endanger our future, as well as those who are in this plight? Various noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Ashdown and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, strongly suggested that this is simply to manage Conservative Back-Benchers. We need to lead, not reluctantly follow.

We welcome the increase in resettlement of refugees from camps in Syria and the region, but it is too little too late and does nothing to tackle the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe. As my noble friends Lord Roberts, Lady Tonge and Lady Hussein- Ece made clear, this may involve only just over 1,000 families a year. It should not be an either/or choice. We clearly need to tackle both problems. Interestingly, my noble friend Lord Ashdown and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby emphasised not only the need for generosity but also the economic benefit we could gain from the skills the Syrians have to offer.

The Government should opt in to the relocation programme proposed by the EU Commission president. Can the Minister assure us that the UK is able to opt in to take refugees who arrive in the UK, despite what her noble friend Lady Stowell said the other day? That includes accepting a small number of refugees who are already in Europe, but also seeking better ways to manage the EU’s external borders and strengthen the EU asylum process.

On the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, there are rules for working out what proportion each country might take, based on a number of criteria that he mentioned, as my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece said. Not being involved means that we play no part in devising those rules. As we know, the conflict in Syria has affected the whole country and led to millions fleeing it and millions more being internally displaced. Many of those fleeing have ended up in the refugee camps in the surrounding region. As my noble friend Lady Tonge pointed out, the UK under the coalition Government became the second biggest humanitarian aid donor in the region, and I am very proud of that. I am glad that this is continuing. We know only too well how destabilising it is to have millions of refugees in the fragile countries around. We must do our best to assist them. As she will know, we took precious few into the UK from those camps and, at first, the Prime Minister would take none. It was only with pressure from his deputy, Nick Clegg, that that policy changed at all.

Here I wish to address the aid budget. I note what the Chancellor said about using the aid budget more directly in the UK's interest, which has a rather chilling sound. As the UN High-Level Panel made clear, development is important for global stability, affecting us all; it is not something that it makes sense to view only as involving limited UK immediate interests. I note what has been said about using ODA for refugees in the UK, and I realise that it is permissible, but it is a concern. Can the Minister tell me when the aid budget was first used to support refugees in the UK? Can she tell me how much was used each year in the last five years to support refugees in the UK? Does she accept that the ODA budget cannot be used to integrate refugees in a donor country’s economy? What are the implications if they are to be so integrated? I do not find an adequate answer either in DfID’s annual reports or accounting to the OECD. Can she tell me what happens to the support for refugees after the first year has concluded? What will be done to ensure that they do not fall on hard-pressed local authority budgets after that first year?

The UK has a long history of supporting the most vulnerable, and reference has been made to what happened in the Second World War, when of course we accepted 10,000 Kindertransport children, one of whom is a Member of this House. So what are we doing now?

This has been an extremely important debate, and I am glad that pressure secured it. The Government have rightly been commended for their action in supporting refugees in the region—but, from all sides, the Government have been condemned for inaction in inadequately supporting refugees in the United Kingdom and for inaction internationally, and especially for inaction in the appalling inability to work with the EU and to help to lead in the EU to resolve this crisis, with a terrible effect on refugees themselves but also in terms of our very place in Europe. Why should our European partners help us to win that referendum when it comes down the track? There are very big questions here about our shared global future. I am not optimistic that we will get those answers tonight, but I can but hope.