Immigration Bill — Report (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 21st March 2016.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department 5:30 pm, 21st March 2016

My Lords, I preface my remarks with a few comments. First, no one doubts the situation that many of these people find themselves in and the enormous humanitarian crisis unfolding across the world. As all people agree, it is the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War and it is happening right on Europe’s doorstep. There is no question, in any shape or form, of the Government not getting it; this is an enormous crisis.

Secondly, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who not only is a great parliamentarian but speaks with great moral authority in this area because of his personal story. We acknowledge that. I know from meetings with the Home Secretary that she takes a personal interest in this, because Sir Nicholas Winterton was a constituent of hers until he sadly died last year.

She has been a great supporter both of him and, of course, of the wider Kindertransport tradition, and of what that says about the generosity of spirit of this country, which has been repeated on a number of different occasions, whether in the case of the Ugandan Asians or the Vietnamese boat people.

Thirdly, I want to say something about Save the Children. No one doubts its analysis, which is at the centre of the debate, the quality of that organisation or the incredible work that it is doing, which I have had the privilege of seeing for myself in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. I had the privilege of visiting those camps and seeing what they were doing. It had a transformative effect on me, not least because it inspired me to come back and walk 518.8 miles to raise money for Save the Children to help in those very camps. So I am not critical. Nothing here understates the crisis or seeks to take away from the great moral authority and history with which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs introduced his amendment, and nothing that I am about to say takes away from our admiration for the work that Save the Children does on this campaign.

The area that we take issue with was probably summed up by the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. She said that this report by Save the Children came out in September and that since then the Government have basically sat on their hands and done nothing about it. I put on record that, in September, the Prime Minister announced that we were going to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the lifetime of this Parliament. When we were in coalition we struggled ever to get more than a couple of hundred under the Syrian resettlement programme. Of that 20,000 who have come so far, 51% have been children. One can therefore extrapolate that what the Government announced in September is more than three times the number of children the amendment seeks to support.

Moreover, the Prime Minister has led the charge in raising funds to help people in the refugee camps. Oxfam’s latest report, which is entitled Syria Refugee Crisis: Is Your Country Doing its Fair Share? and was published in February 2015, highlights a figure of, I think, 227%. That is how much of our fair share the United Kingdom has placed in financial support to Syria. So when people start talking almost as if we should be hanging our heads in shame at the Government’s record in responding to the crisis, I simply say that the facts do not add up to suggest that. We are doing an incredible amount. The Prime Minister led that excellent summit in February, which raised a further $11 billion for the crisis in Syria. Of course, further work is ongoing.

In the specific instance when the Prime Minister was asked about this case—I think by Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats in December in the Commons—he said that he would go away and look at it. Again, the suggestion was somehow that the Prime Minister went away, shrugged his shoulders and forgot all about it. Far from it: he said that he would talk to the UNHCR, with which we work closely in the region, to put the best interests of children first.

We listened to its advice and concerns and we came back with an interim report in a Written Ministerial Statement on 28 January by James Brokenshire, which said that we were first looking at whether we could introduce a scheme not that far away from what my noble friend Lord Lawson, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, talked about. We said that we would look at that and discuss it with the UNHCR. That is exactly what we are continuing to do. The UNHCR has just enabled us to receive that report; it was received by James Brokenshire. We are now considering it and we will come forward with our proposals on how to respond to it. We need to be clear when we talk about the numbers that those numbers were an estimate. Save the Children recognises that when it said 26,000, it was an estimate of the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children that had made their way through Italy and Greece in the period up to August 2015. That was an estimate. It is not as though those people are waiting in a particular area inside Europe.

My second point relates to age. This is a material point, because our Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which has brought 1,000 Syrians to this country already and has pledged to bring 20,000, is aimed at the most vulnerable. Questions can be asked, and I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said about age, but we need to consider that 61% of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who arrive in the UK are aged 16 or 17. We know that the prime country from which they come is not Syria but Albania, followed by Eritrea, Afghanistan and then Syria. The majority, 90% of those who arrive in this country as unaccompanied asylum seekers, are male. The central focus of the Government’s strategy in supporting Syrians has been the protection of women and girls in particular. Therefore, again, the question is whether we are helping the right people.

My next point concerns the pull factor. I am not going to get into that kind of language, but here is what Europol says. Europol says that of the people who arrive in Europe seeking asylum, 90% have got here through a criminal gang. These criminal gangs are vast money-making machines exploiting human misery. I would have liked to have heard a great deal more moral anger directed at those criminal gangs and the way that they are exploiting these children and encouraging them to put their lives in peril by embarking on that journey. I would have liked to have heard a bit more about that. We have set up a task force to seek to clamp down on those criminal gangs that are at work and causing so much misery.

Are people from Syria arriving in the UK? Yes, they are. Every week they are arriving in the UK. They are arriving at airports such as Glasgow and Newcastle, they are arriving into London and they are being welcomed and hosted by British people. They come here not on their own but because we invite them in family units. They come here not to sleep in cardboard boxes but into local authority social housing, and they are provided with care and support, including healthcare and psychiatric care, and with the opportunity to work and earn a living. I think that that is in best traditions of what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, called for in this country and it is happening day in, day out in this country and it will continue. It may well be that it will actually continue at a faster pace as a result of the Prime Minister’s initiative in asking us to look again at the report that Save the Children did and engaging with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

What is my central argument on this amendment? Basically, I question whether it identifies and provides help to the right people. The people who are in Europe, wherever they are in Europe, have the right to claim asylum here. The people most at risk, most vulnerable, are those who are still in the region. That is why our scheme is designed to take people directly from the region to the UK. Noble Lords may seek to belittle some of what the Government are doing, but compared with our European colleagues, we are doing a great deal. We have relocated 1,000 already, as the Prime Minister said we would by Christmas. There was some scepticism as to whether he would deliver on that pledge; he actually exceeded the pledge and we are continuing to do it. In the whole period, the 27 other countries in Europe have managed to resettle 650. Only six countries actually take children, so when there is moral outrage at what the UK is doing in response to the Save the Children report that asked us to take our fair share, I hope that that moral outrage is being directed also at the 21 countries that have not actually taken one Syrian refugee.

This country is doing a significant amount. Could it do more in the face of the crisis? Of course, it could do more in the face of the crisis, but is it working diplomatically? Yes; it is at the heart of the diplomatic efforts. Is it working on security? Yes; we have boats and ships in the Mediterranean seeking to stop people. We have people trying to clamp down on the people smugglers. We announced a new £10 million fund just last month—the debate proceeded as if it had not even happened—from the Department for International Development to help identify children at risk who have come to the European Union. That £10 million will be spent on helping to identify children at risk. We are dispatching the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, to visit the particular reception centres referred to as the hot spots with child protection officers and come back and give us a report.