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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

– in the House of Lords at 3:05 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Votes in this debate

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 3:05 pm, 21st January 2020

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who spoke before lunch. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach have said, the British public rightly support our need to help the vulnerable children who most require our refuge. Parliament and Government feel this too. No one group or party has a monopoly on humanitarianism.

I must first correct some statements that noble Lords made this morning. The first was by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, who said that if it were not for the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the Government would not have done anything. I will outline why that is not the case—without, of course, diminishing the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, over the years. As my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom pointed out this morning, our record over the last 10 years clearly demonstrates that the Government are committed to protecting vulnerable children.

I reiterate our proud record, much of which goes back before the 2018 Act. More than 41,000 children have been granted protection in the UK since 2010, most of them under obligations through the refugee convention and wider commitment to resettlement, rather than through EU structures. More than 5,000 unaccompanied children are being cared for in England alone—a 146% increase since 2014—and we received more than 3,000 asylum claims from unaccompanied children in 2018. That, as my noble friend Lord Hamilton also pointed out, was the third-highest intake of any EU member state, and accounts for 15% of all asylum claims from unaccompanied children across the EU. There is also our commitment to resettle 5,000 people from the wider region in the next year alone.

Our refugee family reunion Immigration Rules provide an existing route for children to join refugee family members granted protection in the UK, with more than 27,000 family reunion visas issued over the last five years. Three thousand were issued to children, enabling them to reunite with family members under this route, in the last year alone.

The second point I must correct is what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr—that in the end we agreed to “let in” only 480 children, rather than 3,500, as demanded by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in his previous amendment. I think the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, might be confusing our obligations under Section 67 with the clause that the amendment before us would delete, which considers only unaccompanied asylum-seeking children family reunion, on which I hope that I have demonstrated our commitment over the years. I reiterate that that policy, in relation to UASC family reunion, has not changed.

This Government were elected on a manifesto which includes a commitment to

“continue to grant asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution”.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, might be dancing on the head of a pin—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

If noble Lords will hear me through—when he says that it excludes children. I suggest that if that were challenged in court, the court might come to a different view.

Furthermore, the UK will continue to be bound by the Dublin regulation during the implementation period, which means that unaccompanied children in the EU and the UK will continue to be able to reunite with family members during 2020. We will continue to process family reunion cases referred before the end of the implementation period.

Our record reflects the unique importance of protecting unaccompanied children and preserving the principle of family reunion, and that policy has not changed. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay provided some clarity on the effect of both Clause 37 and Section 17 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Section 17 does not grant family reunion rights to unaccompanied children but concerns only negotiations on this matter, although I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, expressed disgust at the notion of negotiating. As per the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, which became Section 17, the Government remain committed to seeking a reciprocal agreement for the family reunion of unaccompanied children seeking international protection in either the EU or the UK—that is, to ensure that these vulnerable children can reunite with family members in the UK or the EU.

Clause 37 concerns only the removal of the statutory duty to negotiate an agreement on family reunion for unaccompanied children who have applied for international protection in an EU member state and who have family in the UK, and vice versa. This debate is not on wider issues relating to refugees, asylum or family unity. Indeed, the Home Secretary wrote to the European Commission on 22 October, as I outlined in Committee, to commence negotiations on this issue, seeking to negotiate, as Section 17 set out. I assure noble Lords that the Government are intent on pursuing an agreement no less than that which we would have pursued under the original Section 17, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, posited earlier, although I confirm that I am unable to share the letter.

However, a statutory negotiating objective in primary legislation is not necessary nor the constitutional norm. We are restoring the traditional division of competences between Parliament and Government when it comes to negotiations, and similar changes have been made to negotiating obligations across the Bill. Furthermore, rather than removing Section 17, we have gone beyond the original amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and provided a statutory guarantee that the Government will provide a statement of policy within two months of the withdrawal agreement Bill’s passage into law. This demonstrates our commitment to report in a timely manner and guarantees Parliament the opportunity to provide scrutiny. As I have said, we have already commenced negotiations. We will continue to deliver this negotiating commitment while removing an unnecessary statutory negotiating obligation, restoring those traditional divisions of competencies and going above and beyond to provide Parliament with an additional opportunity for scrutiny with Clause 37.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised the point about best interests. There is no intended or actual legal difference between the phrasing about how and when the best interests of the child should be considered for child family reunion transfers from the UK to the EU and vice versa. Both in the original Section 17 and in Section 17 as amended by Clause 37, there will be a consideration of whether it is in the best interests of the child to transfer from the EU to the UK in order to reunite with a family member, and vice versa. Neither Section 17 nor Clause 37 ever intended to consider whether it was in the child’s best interests to transfer to or from the UK separately from the consideration of whether it was in their best interests to join a family member. In addition to that, our existing statutory obligation in Section 55—

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench

The noble Baroness makes a characteristically careful and conscientious speech—I learned a lot and for that I am very grateful. Could she just tell us why Clause 37 is in this Bill?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

As I explained in Committee, Clause 37 is in this Bill because the Government wished to reiterate their commitment. It is similar in almost every way to Section 17, except that it does not instruct the Government to do something—it merely states the Government’s intention to do something.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench

With respect, it waters down that commitment by making a completely different commitment to make a Statement to the House rather than seek to negotiate a deal in Brussels.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

That is correct. If the noble Lord has finished his intervention, I ask noble Lords to reconsider their intention to divide the House because I hope that I have provided the clarity necessary.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for at least having stated, again, the Government’s position, but I still do not understand it. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, explains why it was difficult to follow. For all the time we spent on it, it is not clear to me or many noble Lords, including on the Government Benches, why the Government are doing what they are doing. Part of the Minister’s speech could have ended up with her saying yes, and that she supported the amendment—part of it led to that conclusion. Somehow, she changed course and said no. She talked about an unnecessary statutory obligation. By that, I believe she means the provision in the 2018 Act—an obligation accepted by the Government in the Commons after we passed it in this House. I do not know why it was okay then but unnecessary today; that has not been explained.

Above all, it seems to me that there is a very clear proposition on family reunion: unaccompanied child refugees should be able to join family members here. All we ask is for the Government to take that and negotiate on that basis with the EU. We cannot predict the outcome; it could not be more modest. All we are saying is, “Please do it”. But the converse, by the Government saying, “We are not going to do it”, sends a very difficult signal. Some people have called the Government mean and nasty. If the Government want to disprove that accusation, surely they should accept this amendment. It is very simple: we do that and then we are in line with what we decided in 2016.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

Does the Government’s track record on admitting child refugees completely rule out the idea that they have been mean and nasty?

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

I do not think so, partly because the majority of the 41,000 children that the Minister referred to came to this country by illegal means because there were no legal means for them. We estimate that about 90% of them came on the back of lorries, in dinghies and so on. Surely that is the very thing we wish to discourage, so I am not convinced by that. I welcome what the Government have done for refugees of course, but we are talking about what we will do in the future. I regret that the signal the Government are sending by this is a very negative one. It is not a humanitarian signal and there is no downside for the Government if they accept the amendment; I do not understand what the problem is. Nobody has yet explained why the world will come to an end or something. It seems fairly straightforward: the House decided in 2018 on a simple humanitarian proposition. The Government have tried to find a way of arguing against that. I am sorry, but it has not persuaded me and I hope it has not persuaded the House. I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 300, Noes 220.

Division number 1 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

Aye: 298 Members of the House of Lords

No: 218 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendment 18 agreed.