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EU: Unaccompanied Migrant Children (EUC Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:29 pm on 1st November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 7:29 pm, 1st November 2016

It was a privilege to serve on the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who chaired with her usual skill and determination, and to have able staff to help us throughout that process.

There is no doubt—it has already come out in the debate—that neither the United Kingdom nor the European Union emerge with any credit from what has been happening in the world. As a former MP for a west London constituency that took refugees from all over the world, I know and fully understand both the problems of doing that and the fear of a host community that is experiencing a degree of population movement that the world has never before experienced. However, I also believe that there is, as has been said, a willingness on the part of the British people to help. If we look back on this time in a few years, all of us will be ashamed of the role played by the United Kingdom and the European Union. I often think that if there is a Charles Dickens out there writing a novel like Oliver Twist, they will be doing it on this issue. Those who have been involved in trying to delay, slow down or make difficult taking children into care in the way we are describing here might feature rather badly in such a novel.

I say very strongly to the Minister that the Government need to look at how the Home Office responds to such reports. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said, she got the response an hour before this debate. I went out to the office just now and it is not there, so we do not know what the Government’s response is. Therefore I can talk about our recommendations but I cannot talk about what the Government will do in response to them. Equally, in the course of other matters that the committee deals with, there have been delays by the Home Office on a number of important issues. It needs to get its act together. I know that the Home Office is a difficult department to manage in all its complexity, but a major department of state, complicated as it is, has to get its act together and do better than it is now. Not to have a response to this report that we can debate now is a disgrace. I hope the Minister will take that back clearly.

A number of things in the report could and should be done, and I hope I will eventually be able to read a response and understand what the Government intend to do. However, I will start with a point raised by a number of Members, most notably in the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Dubs, about the media response to this. If you read about the disbelief shown towards the children’s ages, it brings home to you what those children, and indeed other, older family members, have experienced. As a number of people have said, it is hard to judge a child’s age when they come from a society in which nutrition has not been up to normal standards, reliable dates of birth are not kept, there is intense violence and the child has suffered considerably. I invite a couple of those editors who have been writing stories that stir up hatred and disbelief—I will start with Hugh Whittow, the editor of the Daily Express, and Paul Dacre, my old opponent at the Daily Mail—to give up a week of their holiday and work in one of the places where there are child refugees. To make their nightmare doubly worse—I think they will regard it as a nightmare—I will come with them to work in that area. I do not think they will enjoy the experience but they may learn a degree of humility, care and concern.

On the age factor, I recognise the problem and recognised it years ago as a Member of Parliament, when we had to deal with these issues. First, however, there is an understanding that this is such a difficult problem that you would rather make mistakes on the side of generosity than on the other side of the argument. Secondly, bear in mind, as has already been touched on, that when children leave those situations, they are not just desperate in the sense of fearing for their lives but, as my noble friend Lord Dubs pointed out, afraid of being recognised because their families will be punished. Afghanistan is a good example. If you are in a Taliban area, the Taliban will not only punish your family but force boys to join it. This is why quite a lot of boys come from Afghanistan. Are we really saying we would rather they stayed there to be trained by the Taliban to make bombs and kill people? Is that what we are saying? Therefore, when Mr Hugh Whittow and Paul Dacre come with me, we will have that experience together and they will learn, as I learned over many years, about the complexity of this area. If they do not, they might feature in the novel by the new Charles Dickens, who I hope emerges from this terrible time.

I will make a couple of points on the recommendations. The culture of disbelief of age is important. I would not be against having what are sometimes referred to as invasive tests of age, such as on teeth, and so on. But—this is important—very few of them are accurate. The committee was told by the dental professionals that if you judge a child’s age by the development of its teeth, you can judge it accurately to within only about five years. There are other medical checks, which again, I would not object to in principle, but they are not that accurate. They may be one of the factors you want to use to assess age. However, what will you do with a child from Afghanistan who may turn out to be 19 or 20, who fled from the Taliban because they did not want to be trained to kill? Will we say to them, “You’ve got to go back to that situation”? Therefore, the situation is far more complex than editors of the Hugh Whittow and Paul Dacre type understand. I am offering them an adult learning course in an interesting situation. I hope they will respond to it, but I rather doubt they will.

The next thing I want to say to the Minister, which again is important, is that one of the messages we have to get across is that as soon as a child appears in a European Union country, including in the UK, we must register them. Europol was clear in the evidence it gave to us that a number of children—I think 10,000 was the last figure I heard—just disappear, and we then have no way of checking because we have no record of them. Therefore, recording this is particularly important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, pointed out, we have a legal obligation, which we passed in this country and which has been passed in all other European Union countries, to put the best interests of the child first. If you do that, you do not leave them in camps in Calais or anywhere else. That reflects on all European Union countries, including our own. The best interests of the child need to be put first. The other recommendation, which I think is number 16 on the list of recommendations at the end of the report, is the need for minimum standards in Europe on the definition of,

“the best interests of the child”.

In other words, when we decide that a child is in the care of one of the European Union countries, we should have a minimum standard by which to judge that care.

The other recommendation I will mention is that for single authority to look after migrant children. At the moment in the UK, the responsibility for services and so on is split between the Home Office and the Department for Education. I understand that, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, indicated, a guardian or someone to take the overall needs of the child into account is particularly important, whether that guardian is wholly independent or an institutional organisation. I do not rule that out automatically—I am slightly at variance with the report there—but as soon as you have vulnerable children divided between several organisations or individuals, there is a danger that they will fall through the net, and we need to address that. Perhaps the Minister might take that away and give thought to it.

This report is very important. This situation will be a terrible reflection on this country and on the European Union in years to come. People will look back at those photographs of the children drowned in the Mediterranean or those in the camps in Calais and say, “What was wrong with our society at that time?”. We need to rethink this.