My Lords, I have had a chance to read again the detailed debate at Committee on this issue. What I have to say is influenced by what I heard then and what I have read. I repeat my gratitude to the Ministers for the time they have given me on these three occasions, once on the phone and twice in meetings, to give me their point of view on the issue. I am also grateful for the support I received from many parts of the House, including from Members on the Conservative side. No names, of course, but I appreciate those words of encouragement.
I refer to the Salisbury convention, which came up last time. The Minister justified the position by quoting from the Conservative manifesto:
“We will continue to grant asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution”.
I do not believe that that is an argument against this amendment. This amendment is very specific indeed. It is about family reunion, and much too specific to be covered by this blanket provision in the Conservative manifesto. I believe that we have an entirely new issue, which could not have been foreseen when the Conservative manifesto was published or during the election campaign.
May I remind your Lordships of the history behind this amendment. In 2018, I moved an amendment, to a previous Bill, to provide that the existing provisions of the Dublin treaty, of which we are members as an EU country, for family reunion should be carried through in the negotiations for when we leave the EU. We have an arrangement whereby a child in one EU country who has a relative in another can apply to join those relatives.
It is a very simple and basic matter of family reunion. We want to be sure that this will be part of the negotiation and that the provision would be retained even after leaving the EU. Through a large majority in this House, that became part of the Bill, was then endorsed by the Government and became part of the 2018 Act, although there was no vote in the Commons. It is that provision which the Government are seeking to delete in this Bill, and my wish is to retain the 2018 Act as it stood. It is a very simple point: I would have thought that family reunion is one of the basic things that we all have to believe in.
If there are young people who have worked their way half way across the world, sometimes in hazardous conditions, from war and conflict in Syria or Afghanistan, and their incentive is that they have family here, surely it right that we take note of that and not close the door on them. We all know how awful the conditions are for refugees in northern France and on the Greek islands. I have been there a few times, as have other Members of this House. It is shocking that young people, and others of course, are sleeping under tarpaulins near Calais or on the Greek islands in dangerous conditions where the children are liable to be sexually assaulted at night because there is not enough security. All these things are simply dreadful.
It is not surprising that those who have reached northern France seek to come across illegally, in dinghies or often in the back of lorries. The traffickers take full advantage of that. That is why, by giving young people legal routes to safety, we are thwarting the traffickers as well as being humane in giving them an opportunity to join family members here. Unfortunately, the sort of debate that we have had sends a dangerous signal to young people, particularly in Calais and on the Greek islands if they can get away from there, and they will seek to do what we would all do, which is to say, “Well, if we can’t join our relatives legally, we’ll find another way of doing it if we can afford to pay the trafficker.” Surely that is not a resort that we wish to impose on young people. Family reunion is one of the safe legal routes.
The Minister today will of course talk about the number of refugees and child refugees whom this country has taken. That is good, but of course a large number of them have come illegally. They have arrived in Dover or often somewhere else on the south coast and we have taken them in; they have claimed asylum. That does not justify the Government saying, “Well, we’re doing this anyway. We don’t need to do any more.”
I have been thinking hard about what Ministers have said to me about why they do not like this amendment. I am bound to say that I do not fully understand the argument, and a lot of people to whom I have spoken do not either, but I may have missed something. The Government first told me that the provision in the 2018 Act was in the wrong Act. I do not think they said that when they accepted the amendment, but they said that it should not be in the Bill at all. Furthermore, Ministers have said to me, “Actually, if you want it in a Bill at all, it should be in the immigration Bill, which is coming along, so wait for that”; “Actually, you don’t need it in an immigration Bill. You should have it in immigration rules. You don’t need any legislation at all. Can’t you take our word for it?”
The Immigration Rules do not work in respect of international arrangements, so I do not think it a good enough argument. As for the immigration Bill, that is some time in the future. I am told that it will come this year, but we do not know what will be in scope. The Government Benches may look at opposition parties and say, “Well, you’ve got something as an Act. Accept that it is being removed and maybe another Act will come along and you can do it then,” but that is not how opposition works, and it is not how scrutiny of the Government works. Surely when we can take the initiative, that is what we will do.
It is interesting that the Government approached the EU some time ago on this issue. I understand that there has been no reply yet, which we can perhaps accept for the moment, but I do not know what persuaded the Government to do it were it not that it was in the 2018 Act. Why did the Government seek to write to the EU about a provision that would have died after we left the EU unless they wanted to continue it? I am not totally clear what the point of that letter was.
I am also slightly puzzled as to whether the Government have been writing other letters to the EU that we do not know about yet in anticipation of the negotiations that will start at the end of this month, but that is perhaps too wide a question for this debate.
I want to say the following as calmly as possible. Ministers have also said to me, “This is a matter of trust.” Well, yes, I trust individual Ministers when they look me in the eye and say that that is what they believe—of course I do—but I look also at the behaviour of the Government as a whole, either before the election or now. I remind the House that when we had the 2016 Bill before us, I moved an amendment to help children who did not have family here. That was strongly opposed by the Government; in fact, the then Home Secretary, the right honourable Theresa May, urged me to withdraw the amendment and we had to vote it through. Eventually, after it went backwards and forwards once or twice, the Government accepted the amendment —Theresa May asked me to go and see her and said that the Government proposed to accept it. But it took a bit of argument; it would not have happened automatically.
Similarly, we had to vote on the 2018 measure that I have just referred to. The Government did not say that it was okay. They did not say that we did not need it; they just opposed it. So it is difficult to be faced with a question of trust. Of course I trust individual Ministers, but I do not trust the Government as a whole, if I can draw that distinction.
In Committee I quoted from a letter that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, wrote on
“It is right that the statutory obligation to negotiate previously contained in section 17 of the Withdrawal Act is removed and not retained by this amendment, so that the traditional division between Government and Parliament be restored, and the negotiations ahead can be carried out with full flexibility and in an appropriate manner across all policy areas.”
I am still puzzled by one or two things. One is the
“traditional division between Government and Parliament.”
I think that debates about Brexit and all the challenging issues coming from Brexit have challenged some of the traditional divisions between Government and Parliament anyway. We are no longer where we were and we need to accept that. I am also puzzled that
“negotiations … can be carried out with full flexibility and in an appropriate manner across all policy areas.”
The Minister assured me that we were no longer going to consider refugee children’s family reunion rights as a bargaining chip, so “negotiations” must mean something else. On a more positive note, it might mean that we are going to negotiate as the 2018 Act said. Maybe we are going to negotiate to continue the provisions of the Dublin treaty. If that is what was meant, okay—but that is not what the Government have been saying. I am trying to help the Minister by saying that that is perhaps a more charitable interpretation.
I will draw my remarks to a close. Of course, not all public opinion agrees with this, but I have a sense that public opinion has been broadly supportive of child refugees and of our humanitarian obligations as a country. If the argument is put to the British public, they tend to respond positively. I am not arguing about immigration as a whole but about child refugees.
My Lords, just before the noble Lord concludes his very persuasive remarks, can he put into context for the House the numbers of unaccompanied children we are talking about? In the context of World Refugee Day last year, with 70.8 million displaced people or refugees in the world and a further 37,000 becoming displaced every day, the modesty of what was incorporated by your Lordships’ House and put into law should speak for itself. Will the noble Lord remind the House of the small numbers of the most vulnerable people of all that the amendment deals with?
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am not sure that I have every figure at my fingertips, but let me do my best. Section 67 of the 2016 Act covered children being able to come to Britain without having family here. The Government capped the total at 480. I understand that we are quite well short of that, even today. The Government said the number of 480 was limited by the ability of local authorities to find foster families. That is not the case with children joining their relatives here, where clearly local authorities do not have to find foster places. I think, to date, several hundred children—the Minister may correct the figure—have come under the family reunion provisions in the Dublin treaty. We might be talking about 800. Without having the exact figures, we are probably talking about 1,000 or 1,000-plus in the Greek islands and in northern France. In the context of the international situation, that is very few.
The Minister said that we have taken a certain percentage of the EU total. Yes, we have, but probably only in relation to the size of our country. I do not dispute the figure from the Minister. However, refugees in a wider sense are going to be the most challenging issue to the whole world, and certainly to Europe and ourselves, over many years. But what we are talking about here is a very small number of children, who will be positively affected by this measure. That is why I am pretty keen on it. We had a small demo in Parliament Square yesterday, with a lot of people supporting it. We have had more than 200,000 signatures on a petition supporting the provision. I believe that we are essentially on the side of public opinion. I believe that we are essentially on the side of humanity. I beg to move.
My Lords, I supported the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in Committee and I support him now. I need to declare an interest as a trustee of the Refugee Council. I also need to declare total bafflement; I have absolutely no idea why Clause 37 is in this Bill. I do not understand what the Government are planning to do. I took part in Committee and, after speaking on this, I listened to the Minister at Second Reading and am still none the wiser as to why it is here.
What is on the statute book now in the 2018 Act is a commitment that the Government will seek to negotiate a reciprocal arrangement for these poor children. This clause repeals that requirement and replaces it with a commitment, in almost exactly the same terms, to make a statement to Parliament, which is not a very strong commitment. Why do the Government want to repeal the 2018 Act in this respect? We have heard three possible explanations: first, that it is unnecessary to keep this on the statute book because the Government intend to negotiate on this matter, and the Minister told us that a letter had been written; secondly, that it was always inappropriate to the 2018 Act; thirdly, that it is important not to tie the Government’s hands.
I do not find the first explanation very easy to understand. If the Government are seeking to negotiate and have written a letter designed to open negotiations on this matter, why should they want to repeal the commitment to negotiate? It does not make any obvious sense. On the second argument, regarding inappropriate positioning in the 2018 Act, they say it is much better to put it in the new immigration Bill. But there is no new immigration Bill as yet, and these negotiations are about to start. Also, the Government are not removing from the statute book any reference to this issue; they are replacing it with the language we see in Clause 37. If the 2018 provision was inappropriately placed, the 2020 provision that the Government seek is inappropriately placed. I do not understand that one.
Moreover, it is not a matter appropriate to an immigration Act, because what we have in the 2018 Act and in this Bill is a reciprocal requirement. The idea is that the Government would negotiate to ensure that the 27 would be willing to take poor children in this country who are in this plight and enable them to join their family elsewhere in the 27. The provision for the emigration of small children would be highly inappropriate to an immigration Act or immigration regulations. I believe it follows that the argument about it being inappropriately placed falls.
“It is vital that the Government are not legally constrained in those discussions.”—[Official Report, 13/1/20; col. 554.]
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that the Government do not wish to see their hands tied. However, nothing in the 2018 Act would tie their hands; they must seek to negotiate. We are not saying that they cannot conclude a deal unless they have successfully negotiated. For myself, I do not think it likely that the negotiation on this point would fail, but we are not saying that if it did, everything would be off. We are simply saying that the Government should have a go. I do not see how that would tie anyone’s hands.
This is where it gets awkward. Having tried to understand all three of the arguments advanced by the Government, one is left a little suspicious. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has reminded us that his 2016 action on unaccompanied children was hotly resisted by the Government. We also recall, as he said, that when we were promised at the Dispatch Box that 3,500 of those children would be let into this country—we were not allowed to put that in the Bill, because it would have made it a money Bill or something—we were given a promise, but only 480 children have actually been looked after.
When one remembers that the 2018 provision was hotly opposed by the Government, one is left slightly suspicious that they do not intend to negotiate very hard on this. Perhaps they envisage it as a concession: a pawn that can be given away in negotiations to secure something more important. I do not think that that is what the country thinks. Wearing my Refugee Council hat, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that there is a lot of evidence that the country is taking this very seriously and that of all the issues we are discussing on the Bill, some of them important constitutionally and some politically important, this is probably the one which has the most public resonance. These unfortunate children should be looked after, so why the Government should want to take off the statute book a commitment to do so is something that the public will not understand. I strongly urge the Government to withdraw this clause, and if they do not, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will seek to press his amendment.
My Lords, I speak once more from these Benches, recognising that the argument has been made again and again. I am honoured to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and to concur with all that he said. As my right reverend friend the Bishop of Worcester reminded the House last week—he kindly spoke for me because I could not be present in Committee—this debate resonates with the nativity story, the story of a child fleeing persecution. The voices of these children are too often drowned out by conflict and violence, by traffickers and by political leaders. Let this House speak on their behalf by voting for the amendment.
I shall try to explain again why the Government’s change is proving to be so difficult for those who work with migrant children to accept, and thus why many in this House find it difficult too. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, reminded the Committee and then the House just now, the Government opposed his amendments on previous occasions. The law as it stands was hard fought for; it was not easily won. Thus, the proposed removal appears to be the Government saying, “Well, we never really wanted the Dubs amendments, so now here is a chance to remove them.” I note that in the Conservative Party manifesto there is a reference to welcoming refugees, but the lack of a specific reference to child refugees and family reunion simply adds to public concern.
I fully accept the Minister’s personal commitment to migrant children. I also accept that there is every intention to offer a welcome and maintain family reunion, but what the Government’s proposals have conveyed is quite the opposite. I wrote to the Minister with a suggested compromise, accepting in my letter that it might not work as a proposal, but I am struggling to understand why the Government cannot see that the message they are conveying at present is a negative one, whatever their good intent.
From these Benches, my right reverend colleagues and I view this issue as a moral bell-wether for the future of our country. We want to be known as a country that is welcoming, compassionate and committed to playing our full part in responding to the deep issues that arise from the reality of refugees around the world. I believe that the Minister and the Government want to act with compassion; it is simply that what is proposed does not convey this.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned that, for some, this is cast as an issue of trust. Do we trust that the Government will deliver their promises to vulnerable children without legislative assurance in the EU withdrawal Bill? However, to my mind, this is a matter not simply of trust but of priority. Where do the Government’s priorities lie? It is important that they can negotiate a good deal for this country with our European neighbours, but we cannot set this against our responsibility to protect vulnerable children. That is what Clause 37 suggests: that the Government’s priorities necessarily mean that we cannot give legislative assurance that we, as a nation, will provide for vulnerable children to be reunited with their families in safety. I am sure that that is not the Government’s intention, but our actions testify to our values. The action of including Clause 37, removing the family reunion obligation from primary legislation, speaks louder and will be heard further beyond this place than promises of other legislation yet to be enacted.
Ensuring that there are safe, legal, effective and managed routes for child refugees to be reunited with their families in this country must remain an imperative. Schemes such as community sponsorship—here I declare my interest as a trustee of Reset—are an international gold standard for how to welcome refugees and provide new opportunities for those who have lost so much. We can hold our heads high because of the Government’s work in recent years to support refugee resettlement here. Now is not the time to contradict this good work with the consequences of Clause 37. Will we be open, sharing our prosperity and opportunity with children who deserve so much more than the precarious life of a refugee and have so much more to offer, or will we be closed to them, shut off from the world and our responsibilities as a global power? I believe the choice is clear, which is why I have added my name to this amendment. I urge others to support it and the Government to accept it.
My Lords, I too have added my name to this amendment, as I did at the previous stage. Like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who is in danger of becoming a noun. I have been wondering whether and actually hoping that Clause 37 might be the result of the attentions of—if I can put it this way—an overly diligent draftsman who has failed to see the wider picture of how this looks; in modern parlance one would say the optics. We were told that a statutory negotiating objective is neither necessary nor the constitutional norm. It might not be necessary but it is not unnecessary either, and is the constitutional norm such a straitjacket of a convention that we cannot say what we mean in legislation?
As ever, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, put the constitutional point very clearly at the previous stage. He said that Clause 17 of the 2018 Act is
“an instruction to the Executive to open negotiations in a certain way”,—[
I am on the same page as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. I am puzzled and a bit suspicious, because when there is a rather technical point or amendment—we are being told that this is a technical point—on a sensitive issue, my antennae naturally twitch. The more the Government tell us that they are not making any real changes, although they have changed the words, the more my antennae wave around, trying to catch hold of what this is all about. I am not surprised that the phrase in the Minister’s letter about carrying out negotiations
“with full flexibility and in an appropriate manner across all policy areas” was much referred to. Section 17 does not restrict that, although it does not mention reciprocity, as the Government did—but I do not think that that is material.
I raised a point last week about the differences in the wording for the child’s “best interests.” Under the existing provision, the child’s best interests are referred to in the context of coming to the UK. Clause 37 applies the best interests to joining a relative. I think that both of those are important. The Government assured us that there was no significance in that, but I do not want to let something that might be important go unchallenged. The Minister referred me to the term “equivalent circumstances”—she is nodding at that—but it is not in the same part of the clause. It is in subsection 1(b) rather than 1(a), so I do not think that that answers my “best interests” question. I also asked the Minister last week if she could make available a copy of the letter sent last October to the Commission which she said should reassure noble Lords, but she was not sure whether she could. As she has not been able to pursue that, I assume that it is not available, but perhaps she could confirm that.
I come back to the proposed change. It must mean something. It does not make the very modest objective of Section 17 any more achievable—certainly not to most noble Lords who have spoken. Noble Lords will understand that given the subject matter of the clause and the relatively few individuals subject to it, there is a strong feeling that Parliament should not reduce our commitment to these children to safe and legal routes or–this was a point made by the right reverend Prelate—to be thought to be doing so.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made clear in his opening remarks, this is a question of trust. He seemed to suggest that he trusted my noble friend the Minister but did not trust the Government. I am not sure how happy my noble friend is about being described as a sort of semi-detached member of the Government—but let us ignore that. Actions speak louder than words. The Government have a very credible record in allowing child refugees into this country. I think we run third among EU countries that have allowed in child refugees. Given that, the only basis on which this amendment can be supported is the belief that, if it is defeated, the Government will then stop taking in any further child refugees. I think that that defies all credibility; I do not think that there is any possible basis to support that thesis and I take the view that we have done very well on the question of child refugees and that if it’s not broke, don’t mend it.
My Lords, in listening with interest to what the noble Lord has just said, I entirely accept that the Government have done some very good work. We heard of it from the Minister last week and we ought not to undervalue the extent to which the Government have brought children to this country, but we are talking about a very small group. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about this and it might be 1,000. Among the children about whom we are speaking, this is a small group who have rights only under Dubs III.
I may have unintentionally misled the House last week, for which I apologise, by making a comment when I felt so strongly about this matter that I got carried away. I did not read my notes and led the House to believe that there was some English law providing a right for children. I was wrong and was rightly corrected by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, who kindly did not refer to me when he set out the existing position, which is that Dubs III—I am sorry, it is Dublin III, although one really ought to call it Dubs III—comes to an end in January 2021. Of course I trust the Minister and have huge respect for her genuine commitment to children, but what I am concerned about is urgency.
Given everything else that goes along with Brexit, it would be very easy for this Government, intentionally or unintentionally, not to have a priority regarding these children, a point made by the right reverend Prelate. What we need is to retain the sense of urgency. We do not find that in Clause 37, but we have it to a greater extent in Section 17 of the 2018 Act. It does not take us all the way, but it includes the requirement for things to happen. I am not happy, with everything that has been said today and everything that I fear may be thought behind the scenes, that this will be dealt with having a proper regard for urgency. From January next year these children, who have a right to come to this country and are among the most deprived and vulnerable children in the world, will lose the right to do so unless a degree of realism and urgency is injected into the Government.
My Lords, I agree entirely about the lack of urgency. I also feel that there is a lack of enthusiasm for any sort of legislation that would mean more possibilities for people to come to the United Kingdom for sanctuary.
I remember with great sadness the day some years ago when we voted on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I saw the Tory Benches trooping through the Not-Content Lobby. I really felt so sad then. In the years since, I have been quite assiduous in dealing with these matters and the Minister must be tired of my contributions. But in 12 years, the only change I have managed to make is that the Azure card has been changed for the Aspen card. It is just a card giving £35 in one way or another. Asylum seekers still have no right to work until 12 months are up, and even then only from a restricted list. We still have indeterminate detention. In 2005, 17% of Home Office decisions were overturned on appeal, while last year and in the previous years it was about 40%. We still see a tremendous reluctance on the part of the Government to move, which is why I am totally opposed to removing any sort of legislation in the European agreements to protect child asylum seekers.
I will not speak for long because I have talked about this a great deal over the years, but I will make a plea to the Government. There are so many decent people on their Benches and yet, when we had the previous vote on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, some years ago, they voted against the rights of children. There is now an opportunity to strike a new chord: to offer hospitality rather than hostility to arrivals seeking sanctuary in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I share an admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, with almost every Member of this House. He has been determined and dogged on this issue. Perhaps I speak more as a former Home Office Minister in this House than as a former Chief Whip when I say I understand the arguments. I can see where the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is coming from, but this Bill is about providing a framework under which the Government can enter negotiations and withdraw from the European Union on the 31st of this month.
We know what the Government have said all through the period of negotiations: Dublin III will apply. We will be doing what has already put into action. The figures show that since the start of 2010, 41,000 children have found homes in this country. There is a category that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is particularly concerned with: maintaining the rights of unaccompanied children. There too, the numbers have been shared by this Government. I was a Home Office Minister in the coalition Government where noble Lords sitting on the Lib Dem Benches were my partners in maintaining this policy throughout that period. It is important to understand that within this House there is some unanimity of purpose about this Act.
What is worrying to me as former member of this Government, and sitting on these Benches, is the lack of trust that noble Lords have shown in the commitments made by my successor in the Home Office, my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford. Nobody has worked harder to convince people of the intentions of this Government. Nobody has spoken with greater authority on the subject than her. As my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom said, it is distressing that this House is not prepared to believe what is said on behalf of the Government by a Minister on this issue. This is a problem that this House is going to have to come to terms with. I went to the briefing meeting in room 10A last week, as did an awful lot of people. I think that the truth of the matter is that the room was convinced of the intentions of my noble friend, and by the responses she was able to give.
This withdrawal agreement Bill is not about providing specific negotiating instructions to the Government. It is about providing the Government the authority to enter negotiations. The Government made a manifesto commitment on this matter. It may not be as specific as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would have liked, but its general application applies. The Government will be not be negotiating in bad faith and trying not to find a long-term solution. We all know that this area of joint activity with our European colleagues needs agreement. It needs to be understood how we are all going to deal with these difficult cases of individual children and migrant refugees in general. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, may well be making a point but is he being effective in helping the Government achieve that objective by seeking to promote his amendment? I think not and that is why I will oppose his amendment and I urge other noble Lords to do the same.
Will the noble Lord be good enough to explain to me—who has just been listening to what has been said in this debate—why the Government put this in the Bill if it has nothing to do with what the Government should be doing in the negotiations?
My Lords, the reason why the House is so nervous is not that we in any way do not trust the word of the Minister, but because the Prime Minister has a habit of saying one thing on Europe and then doing another. It is not the Minister but the person at the top of the Government that the trust may not emanate from. Let us be clear and go through what this is about logically, as some noble Lords have done.
The first issue, following what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has said, is that Section 17 of the 2018 Act is an instruction to negotiate. It gives absolutely no conditions for those negotiations. It is same as Clause 37 before us now. The difference is that Clause 37 gives a two-month period before a new policy will be laid before Parliament. We have no idea what is going to be in that policy. There could be changes so that it may not be as clear, watertight and concise as what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, sought to do with his previous amendments and what he is trying to do in this clause.
Noble Lords—particularly on the Government Benches and some on the Cross Benches—have said the Government have a good track record on this. Let us be clear. The Government have a track record of trying to stop amendments on this from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in 2016 and 2018. The only reason that the British Government have a good record is because the noble Lord has forced both Houses to make sure that we carry out the obligations that we are now carrying out. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said, on many occasions, Home Secretaries have pulled him in and asked him to withdraw the very obligations that the Government are now trying to claim credit for. That is why trust is not great on this issue as well. Logically, no one’s hands are going to be tied behind their backs if we take the Minister at her word. On
“Our policy on this has not changed”.—[Official Report, 15/1/20; col. 764.]
Therefore, the policy can be laid before the House now. Why the two-month wait? Is the Minister giving an absolute guarantee that not one word in the policy will change? If it has not changed, those whom we are negotiating with in Europe will have already been told exactly what the policy of the Government will be, in more detail than what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is trying to achieve by making sure that Clause 37 does not go through.
The real issue here is that if Section 17 of the 2018 Act was not in place the only difference is that the Government would negotiate—which the Minister has said they are going to do because they have sent a letter—but there would not be the two-month wait while policy was laid before this House, during which things could change and the guarantees in the policy could be watered down, leaving the most vulnerable children of all more vulnerable than they are now. Those of us who support the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, are doing so because of the potential for watering down the policy during the two-month delay. As I say, the trust issue is not with the Minister, but the Prime Minister says one thing about leaving the European Union to gain favour, and then when he has the chance, he changes his view.
My Lords, I will be brief but I am moved to speak on this issue, particularly as the speeches have piled up. First, though, I commend the right reverend Prelate on talking about this as a moral bell-wether. In my earlier speech on this matter, I also said that this is as much a moral and ethical issue as it is a political and legal one. I genuinely believe that. The issue of trust that we are now getting into is difficult for us, but it is not just about trust; as the noble and learned Baroness opposite and the right reverend Prelate said, it is a matter of priority and of urgency. Why do we need a two-month delay, as the noble Lord who has just spoken asked, if there is a commitment from the Government to maintain the position?
In the manifesto on which this newly elected Government went to the country, there were commitments on refugees but not specifically on child refugees, and not beyond what was set out in the 2018 Act. It seems to a number of us on these Benches, both those who have spoken and many who have not, that this is not only a moral issue but an extremely urgent one that must have priority. Those who heard the remarks made in this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, where she read the words of a child in a classroom in this country, will know that it is important to understand the profound sense among British people that we must do our utmost to deal properly with child refugees. I believe that there is a profound commitment to make sure that these children, who have come through some of the most difficult circumstances that can possibly be imagined and have the prospect of being reunited with members of their families—that is the group of children we are dealing with in this amendment—can look forward to a much better life. It seems to those of us on these Benches, along with the Cross Benches and I am sure among some Members opposite, that we cannot let go of this lightly. I therefore urge us all to vote for the amendment.
My Lords, to sum up briefly, the Minister will have heard the strength of feeling in this House and the state of perplexity and bewilderment at the legislative record on this: the section is in the 2018 Act and there was no provision in the first version of this Bill to delete it. Therefore, in terms of continuity, the position would point to the Government accepting the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, which would surely be the graceful and gracious thing for the Government to do. The strength of feeling no doubt indicates to the Government that they might otherwise have to deal with a vote in this House. There is a way out for them, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to take it.
My Lords, the debate has been eloquent and emotion has played its part. I must begin by paying yet another tribute, for the second time today, to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who has proved to have an expertise in the area of bafflement as much as anything else. The clever way in which he unpicked the strands from the balls of wool that had got tangled up and pulled them out for us to look at just left us totally bewildered, so that when it all settled back again we understood as little as we did before he began.
I have listened to the arguments, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, for whom I have nothing but respect, will need to listen a little harder on the nature of the lack of trust, which is dependent not on political, adverserial positions but on a genuine feeling that we are at a moment in our parliamentary history where we have lost the art of building consensus and taking an argument forward with the respect and even affection we have for each other when we are outside the debating Chamber. It seems to me that in this debate we have reached that sort of point.
It is a source of great wonderment to me that something put in an Act just 18 months ago is now not in it and that arguments are being put forward to justify taking it out. I certainly do not understand it, but it is a long time since I took my bachelor of arts degree and perhaps I am getting addled in my old age. But it is for a small group of children—children with relatives, which limits the number even further—on the part of a Government who have already done so well in the area looking after the interests of children. It is not an instruction to the Government to do this or that which we are seeking to put into this amendment. It is not about outcomes. It is to start or keep alive a process of negotiation on this issue.
The right reverend Prelate is quite right that this has a moral dimension. We must never forget that. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, mentioning “urgency”, “two months” and all the rest of it reminds us that we have a chance here to put this into the Bill in a way that gets things started at once, for an objective which I cannot believe a single person in this House would refuse to want and desire. I do not know. I am new to this game of politics. I try my best, I really do.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, quoting the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, emphasised that point; nobody is seeking to tell the Government what to do or what point to reach in what they do. There is a difference between outcomes and process. All we want in the Bill is that a process be entered into. Outcomes will depend on the negotiations. That is the desire here. Other people have spoken eloquently. I hope that, in a spirit of generosity, there will be no riding of high horses because “We’ve won an election”. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, it is in the school of humanity that we will be judged, not on our party, partisan positions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is another person to whom I have listened with enormous respect in the short time that I have been doing this work, and I hold her in that respect now. Yesterday, an agreement was forged via the usual channels on a stance on an issue that would arise later in the evening. During the afternoon, that stance was totally modified, and we had to take our people through the Lobbies in an entirely different way. If that can happen in an afternoon, perhaps there is some justification for trust needing to be earned.
So, the matter is before us. I am quite sure that we will be asked to vote on it, but it is a terribly serious issue about the body politic in this country. This is an admirable debate where we can learn the art of constructive engagement and putting together a better tomorrow.
My Lords, this is an important stage in the debate. With the agreement of the usual channels, we are going to put off the rest of the debate until after lunch to allow noble Lords to think about this. The Minister will wind up after lunch.