Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 5:30 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, but I hope that on this occasion he and the House will forgive me if I do not rise to the bait and talk about the issues he has just covered. I want to talk about child refugees, who have not yet been mentioned in our discussions today.

I recall that just before we went away for the election we spent some time discussing child refugees, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I refer to some of those issues. We have two schemes: Section 67 of the Immigration Act and what are called the Dublin III regulations. Under Section 67 for unaccompanied child refugees with no family here, I understand that so far we have taken 200. The Government made a commitment to take another 150 and then, just before the election, said that there had been an error and that there were places for a further 130, making 480 in total. I have tabled a Question on Thursday to confirm the figures—so if the Minister is looking a little askance, she has a chance today or on Thursday to get them right.

Dublin III gives child refugees the right to join their family. I understand that we have taken some 800, almost all from France—although there are other children who qualify and who are in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. In addition, we have the voluntary vulnerable persons refugee scheme from the region, and so far we have taken more than 5,700 to be resettled in this country—just a handful of whom have been children at risk.

I will raise one specific point. As regards the vulnerable persons scheme, I understand that we do not take children who are mentally ill—or at least that UNHCR finds vulnerable children in the camps and has tended not to identify mentally ill children as appropriate for coming to the UK, which has caused some concern. This may not be true and I am not even sure whether UNHCR is the body that is making these decisions; I am simply repeating what I have been told. Nor am I aware of whether this country has any direct input into the criteria applied by UNHCR. So I will move on.

When the Government accepted Section 67 of the Immigration Act, I was assured that they would accept the letter and the spirit of the amendment. They then brought the scheme to a halt, principally on the grounds that there were not enough local authority foster places available. I am afraid that putting that proposition to the test indicated that quite a lot of local authorities were willing to find more foster places for children. Indeed, the Scottish Government also said that they had more places—so I do not think that the Government’s reasoning was other than flawed.

I understand that very few unaccompanied child refugees have gone to Northern Ireland. Given that Northern Ireland now has a financial bonus from the Government—I have tried to use a more tactful word—it seems to me that this is exactly the time when Northern Ireland can do what the rest of the United Kingdom has done and take some child refugees, because it now has the money to do it. I know that there is a willingness on the part of the people of Northern Ireland to do it, so they should get on with it.

A judicial review is taking place in the High Court and I have spent a couple of days listening to it. A decision will be made before too long to test the proposition as to whether local authorities have been properly consulted and whether they are willing to put forward foster places.

All the people involved, including faith groups, community groups and so on, are very keen on this issue and have urged me and others to keep up the pressure on the Government. The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that, since the closure of the Jungle in Calais and the dispersal of children across France, some of them have made their way back to the Channel coast and are living in pretty awful conditions, as are children in Greece and Italy. An agreed approach by the French and British authorities as regards the children in northern France would be helpful. I am not sure that all the children know what their rights are, so, together with the French authorities, we should make clear those rights and explain how they can stay in France or come to this country.

I turn now to difficulties in the Balkans, because quite a few children have fled there from Greece, where they are now trapped. We should look at the possibility that at least some unaccompanied child refugees in the Balkans could find their way to this country. I will refer briefly to refer to family reunion claims. The success rate is low, partly because, say, a Syrian boy in Greece may not be able to identify properly the name and address of an uncle living in Birmingham. That needs to be sorted out.

Briefly, the Government should reopen Section 67 and reconsult local authorities. We should look at children in the Balkans. We should consider scrapping the 20 March cut-off date for eligible children because there are some very vulnerable ones who have been caught by it. We should be more proactive in investigating claims to family reunion. We should support more fully the embassies in France, Greece and Italy, and now in the Balkans, with staff to do this, and we should expand the scheme from the region.

Above all, we should share the responsibility for refugees with other countries. We are doing more than some but less than others, as I am sure the Minister will say when he comes to wind up the debate. We can do better than we are doing.