I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s support for the Syrian refugee crisis; commends the UK on its provision of aid to Syria and the region, the resettlement programmes and support to unaccompanied children in France; acknowledges that in 2016 over 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived by sea in Greece and Italy; notes that only 8 children were transferred from Greece and Italy under the Dublin III Regulation last year and none under the Dubs scheme; expresses disappointment that the Dubs Scheme will be ending with only 350 children benefiting; calls on the Government to work with the Greek and Italian governments to support access to family reunification under the Dublin III Regulation in a timely manner; and further calls on the Government to continue to monitor local authority capacity for further transfers of children under the Dubs scheme, consulting with local authorities at least once every financial year.
The protection of vulnerable child refugees is not a party political issue. It does not matter on which Benches we sit in this House or what colour rosettes we wear on election day; the belief that we have duties and responsibilities to refugee children is not particular to any one political party, faction or ideology. I therefore start by thanking the other sponsors of the debate—the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin)—and by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for recognising the importance and bipartisan nature of the issue in granting time for the debate today.
Just a few days after I presented the application to the Backbench Business Committee to secure this debate, the Government made an announcement on child refugees, and it is with that that I must start. Let me be clear: the decision to cancel the Dubs scheme after admitting only 350 children shames Britain. It must not stand. That amendment, won after a hard fight by activists inside and outside this place, was a symbol of the Government’s recognition that we can and should do more for those children who are in need of our help. We all had different views about whether it went far enough, but we were united in our belief that we should honour not only our international commitments but the history and legacy of our country.
Lord, Alf, Dubs of Battersea arrived in Britain a refugee as part of the Kindertransport—one of the proudest moments in the history of our country. He is living proof that refugees are not a burden to our country or our culture, but a part of us—a part of the British family. But now this: 350 children and the door slams shut. That is only about half the number of children that one man, the great Sir Nicholas Winton, managed to bring to this country. Is that really it? We in this House were led to believe that at least 3,000 children would arrive under the Dubs scheme. Honestly, that was not enough for me, but it was a good start.
I am sure that I speak for many when I say that I am angry that the Government have let us all down. Worse than that is the fate of children in Europe today who thought that they were coming to Britain—children from Syria, Somalia and Darfur who have told journalists that they may as well clamber on to lorries to get to safety now, as they have given up on our country keeping its promises.
We were led to expect that there would be at least 3,000 children. My hon. Friend will recall the statement by the then Minister for Immigration, now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on 21 April:
“We will commit to resettling several hundred individuals in the first year with a view to resettling up to 3,000 individuals over the lifetime of this Parliament, the majority of whom will be children.”—[Official Report, 21 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 19WS.]
Is it clear to her why that clear commitment has been broken?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, and one that I will direct to the Minister. It is his responsibility to answer that question today.
The Government made two arguments to justify their decision. I will talk about pull factors later, but first, let me deal with local authority capacity. It is not true that there is no space left for Dubs children in local authority care. The Home Office cannot make that claim because it has not even asked about Dubs spaces in future. Let us consider Lewisham. It said that it can take 23 children, but it has received just one. How many places did local authorities offer for Dubs children? Does the Home Office know? If not, how can Ministers say that there are no places left? Will the Minister publish the figures? Will he tell us how many children each local authority has taken, so that civil society groups and Members of Parliament can work with them to try to get more spaces? The House deserves answers. There is much more to be done with local authorities to resettle children under the Dubs scheme. We cannot and should not give up.
Would the hon. Lady, like me and I am sure other Members, like to know from the Government how many people have been allowed to come under the equivalent of the Canada sponsorship scheme? As I understand it, so far two people have been accommodated under that scheme.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, which, again, the Minister must answer today.
It is deeply depressing to start a debate that was supposed to focus on how to build on the Dubs amendment by having to fight the same fight over again. The debate is about how we can do more for the many unaccompanied child refugees stuck in Greece and Italy. The Minister will talk about the fantastic support that this country offers refugee camps in the middle east and north Africa, how much we spend and how we do not want people to attempt the perilous journey across the sea. I will wholeheartedly agree with him. I am proud of our work overseas. It is right that we do everything possible to look after people in the region and keep them out of the hands of people traffickers who exploit their desperation. Nobody wants people, least of all children, to board those boats and make that crossing. However, we must move beyond those generalities. We are talking about desperate individuals, and hundreds of children do board those boats and end up in Greece and Italy. When they arrive, they remain vulnerable to the same traffickers who put them on the boats in the first place. They are exploited physically and often sexually. They are made to see and endure things that no child should ever have to. Unaccompanied children are the most at risk, and as the conflict continues unabated in Syria and parts of Africa, more children arrive in Europe without an adult to look after them.
The hon. Lady is making a passionate case for her view. I represent Dover, and across the channel we had the Calais jungle, which was the biggest migrant magnet, where people were condemned to live in squalor. They were there in the hope of getting into Britain. The problem is that taking people in from Europe simply increases the pull of the migrant magnet. We know that because we are on the frontline.
As a Member of Parliament who also represents a port area of our country, I pay tribute to all those who work to keep our ports and our borders safe. I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s argument about a pull factor in a moment.
Some of us were lucky enough last night to attend a screening of Ross Kemp’s documentary, “Libya’s Migrant Hell”, an outstanding, if harrowing, account of what is going on in Libya. It should be compulsory viewing for all hon. Members. Given that Amnesty calculates that one in four of the people who make that journey are children, does the hon. Lady agree that it is incumbent on us to show far more compassion and protect that most vulnerable group?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, with which many hon. Members will agree. To put it simply, the risk to children does not end when they reach dry land. The boat may be behind them, but the danger is not. The refugee camps, especially in Greece, are overflowing, with children being left outside, cold and alone. In Greece, only about half of all unaccompanied child refugees are in official shelters. The rest are stuck in squats waiting for their applications to be processed. Even if they do find shelter, they are very vulnerable indeed. This simply cannot go on. We have a duty to help these children and we must not turn them away.
Some of these children have relatives in this country. I would be very interested to know how the Minister is going to respond to this: how many of those children’s applications are still outstanding?
My hon. Friend asks a crucial question. If, by the end of the debate, the Minister has not answered that question, I think many of us will be up on our feet demanding answers.
We made great progress, working with the French authorities, on resettling children under Dubs and, as alluded to by my hon. Friend, under the Dublin III regulation where children have family members living in this country. I welcome the progress made on that front, but we are still asking Greece and Italy, two countries that are not equipped to deal with the refugee flows by themselves, to accommodate the vast majority of them. According to UNICEF, more than 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived in those two countries last year alone. That is difficult, to say the least, for those countries, problematic for Europe and, most of all, bad for the children themselves.
We know that, despite our best efforts, children are still making the journey alone. We know they are arriving in Greece and Italy, which are not able to deal with them all. We know that many have family here and that it is in their best interests to be transferred to the UK under the Dublin agreement. So why are we not doing more to help? Some 30,000 children arrived in Greece and Italy last year, but just eight of them transferred to the UK. One member of Home Office staff in Greece and one in Italy are charged with assessing and processing children whose best interests lie in a transfer to the UK.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making a very powerful speech. Many Members, particularly those of us with city constituencies, will have had extensive experience of working with former unaccompanied children who are resident in this country. We know that the length of insecurity and uncertainty that prevails before they can make a successful application often leaves permanent scars and damage, particularly to their mental health. Is it not absolutely essential that we cut through that and provide certainty for as many children as we can as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend speaks from great experience and I hope the Minister listened to what she said. If the Minister is really prepared to consider this matter, he should watch the documentary made by Liverpool footballer Dejan Lovren about his experience as a refugee and the uncertainty that he lived through. He has been brave in speaking openly about his life. I encourage the Minister to take heed of his words. It is no wonder that it has taken the best part of a year for many children’s applications to be processed, leaving them in the kind of limbo my hon. Friend mentions.
Let me be clear with the Minister. There are agencies working in Greece and Italy with the capacity to make referrals, but they will not raise the hopes of children when the process itself is so dire. The Government must commit today to streamlining the system, so that agencies and children have confidence in it and can start to make referrals quickly. We know that this can be done because it was done in France when hundreds of applications were processed in a matter of weeks. This situation is just not acceptable and we must do more.
I want to address an argument we hear constantly from the Government when we talk about resettling refugees—a line we have heard repeatedly from the Home Secretary, especially when talking about the Dubs amendment. She says it encourages people traffickers and that it acts as an incentive for perilous journeys. We have heard again today that it is a draw for migrants. The Government must drop this feeble line of argument once and for all.
People are not getting on those boats because of pull factors; they are doing so because they are fleeing war, poverty, famine and exploitation in their own countries. Even refugee camps in Greece or Italy, dangerous though they are, are safer than the hell they are running away from. We know this and the Government know this. If they do not, they should try to understand the reality. They should look at a picture of the ruins of Homs or Aleppo and tell me again about pull factors. They should see the desperation on the faces of starving people in Yemen or Somalia and explain to me again how Dubs was an incentive. They should speak to a child escaping forced servitude as a soldier in Eritrea, and repeat again to me that our immigration system is a draw. It is not; it was not; and we should not pretend otherwise. Have the Government any hard evidence to support that claim, and, if so, will the Minister produce it?
If the Government really believe the pull factors nonsense, there is just one obvious change that they could make. Under the current system, children in camps in the region can only apply to be transferred under Dublin III if they have a parent living in the United Kingdom with whom they can be reunited, but for children already in Europe, the rule can apply to extended families, grandparents, siblings or aunts and uncles. However, many of these children are orphans.
I genuinely thank the hon. Lady for giving way, but does she not recognise that the idea that pull factors do not exist just because push factors do exist is an inappropriate construct? There can be both push factors and pull factors; they are not mutually exclusive.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that safety is a pull factor, I agree with him. If he is suggesting that not starving is a pull factor, I agree with him. If he is suggesting that escaping the bombs dropping on a child’s head is a pull factor, I entirely agree with him.
This debate will continue. I think it right for us to have the debate out in the open, and Members who disagree with me will have a chance to make their case, too.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, because I need to end my speech now.
As I was saying, many of these children are orphans who have no parents with whom they can be reunited. However, the Government are effectively saying that a child in a refugee camp in north Africa who has a grandparent in the UK is not eligible, but if that child got on a boat and went to Italy, he or she would be. That is madness. Will the Minister agree to think again and allow children in the region to apply under Dublin III to be reunited with their extended families in the UK?
As the Minister has heard from Members on both sides of the House, there are many points that he must address in his speech. In respect of Dublin III, will he commit himself to improving the system in Greece and Italy? Will he send more staff, speed up the processing of applications and work with the agencies in those countries to identify eligible children? Will he commit himself to allowing Dublin transfers from the region to extended families in the UK? In respect of Dubs, will he show us the figures on local authority capacity? Will he at least agree to monitor capacity and increase the numbers where possible? Will he, once and for all, drop the pretence that the main factor that is dragging children on to those boats is our immigration system, rather than war, poverty and famine?
I started by saying that this was not a party-political issue, and I stand by that. This is about British values, which we all share, and our desire to honour those values. Across Europe and the world, people are questioning whether we mean what we say when we talk about Britain as a welcoming, open, tolerant and decent country. It is up to us to show that we are who we say we are, that we will live up to the legacy of our past and that we will not turn away from the suffering and desperation of children on our own doorsteps who need our help.
Order. May I suggest to all Members that they speak for up to nine minutes? If everyone can do that, everyone will have an equal amount of time.
I thank the Members who tabled the motion, and I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for agreeing to allow me, exceptionally, to speak early in the proceedings. I thought it would be helpful if I set out the Government’s position on this important matter at the outset. I hope that, by doing so, I can better inform the debate that will follow, and correct much of what has already been said in the debate and, indeed, in the media.
Britain has a proud record of helping the most vulnerable children who are fleeing conflict and danger. I want to underline this Government’s commitment to supporting, protecting and caring for the most vulnerable asylum-seeking and refugee children affected by the migration crisis. Let me start by making one thing clear: the Government are absolutely and fully committed to helping and supporting the most vulnerable children. In the past year, we have given refuge or other forms of leave to more than 8,000 children, and in the first two weeks of this month alone we have resettled more than 300 refugees in the UK, about half of whom are children. Indeed, just today 80 Syrian refugees arrived in Ulster as part of the Syrian vulnerable person scheme. The Government have certainly not, as some have suggested, closed their doors.
The Government strategy is to resettle the most vulnerable refugees directly from the regions. That is how we stop traffickers and smugglers exploiting vulnerable people and children affected by conflict. By the end of this Parliament, we will have resettled 20,000 Syrian nationals through our Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme, one of the biggest resettlement schemes this country has ever undertaken, and a further 3,000 of the most vulnerable children and their families from the middle-east and north Africa region under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme. Today, I am pleased to update the House that over 5,400 individuals—slightly more than the figure that was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—have been resettled under the Syrian vulnerable person scheme since its expansion in October 2015.
I was referring to the Canadian sponsorship scheme. A similar scheme for community groups was supposed to have been set up in the UK, under which, I understand, the royal total of two people have been able to come.
I met Canadian representatives when visiting refugee camps in Jordan. We have measures in place, as part of the scheme for the 20,000, to enable community groups to take people to come here. Under the Dublin proposals, if grandparents can show that they can care for children, those children can come here from another EU country. Those children must, of course, claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.
Crucially, our resettlement schemes help to ensure that children do not become unaccompanied. They allow children to be resettled with their family members before they become unaccompanied, and before attempting perilous journeys to Europe.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for offering clarity. I want to be absolutely clear. Will he confirm that the Government are continuing to accept children into this country?
Yes, as I said, last year about 8,000 children came to this country, and, indeed, there are 4,500 unaccompanied children in local authority care at this moment.
We have pledged over £2.3 billion in aid in response to the events in Syria and the region—our largest ever humanitarian response to a single crisis—and we are one of the few EU countries to meet our commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid. We have also committed over £100 million of humanitarian support to help alleviate the Mediterranean migration crisis in Europe and north Africa. I am proud of the part we are playing in this matter.
I thank the Minister for holding a surgery for MPs recently to clarify points within his brief, but does he believe that his statement on 7 February was in line with the will of this House on the Dubs amendment?
I will come on to that, and, indeed, it is important that one reads the Dubs amendment and looks at amendments rejected by this House in that regard.
Within Europe, in 2016 we transferred over 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to the UK from other European countries, including more than 750 from France as part of the UK’s support for the Calais camp clearance. According to the latest EU resettlement and relocation report, since July 2015 the UK has resettled more people towards the EU’s overall resettlement target than any other EU member state. In 2016, we transferred almost as many unaccompanied children from within Europe to the UK as the entire EU relocation.
More broadly, with UK support, UNICEF aims to provide shelter, food, essential supplies and medical assistance for 27,000 children and babies. UK aid to the International Committee of the Red Cross supported activities including family reunification, and we also funded the secondment of child protection specialists to work with UNICEF in Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia. In Greece, we have so far spent £28 million to support migrants and refugees through key partners such as the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration and the Red Cross. This support has reached more than 250,000 people.
I thank my hon. Friend for setting out the facts. Does he agree that we must be careful to avoid unintended consequences? The sentiments and intentions of those on the Opposition Benches are very sincere and good, but the road to the hell of the Calais jungle is paved with those kinds of intentions and that kind of pull-factor? We cannot have that squalor again.
We must certainly be aware that pull factors can be created when statements are made that might encourage people to enlist people traffickers.
Does the Minister recognise that the smugglers’ best sales technique is to say that there is no alternative safe, legal route for children to get to safety in the United Kingdom?
The whole point of the Government’s approach is to help people in the region, so as to prevent them from making those perilous journeys. In the majority of cases, these are not orphaned children but children whose parents are sending them on a hazardous journey. We have only to look at the mortality in the Mediterranean, where pull factors are encouraging children to make those journeys. Sadly, many of them end up in a watery grave.
Our £10 million refugee children fund for Europe prioritises unaccompanied and separated children. It provides immediate support and specialist care, alongside legal advice and family reunification where possible. In Calais, we responded to a humanitarian need to deliver a complex and urgent operation in tandem with a sovereign member state.
Will the Minister give way?
I want to make some progress, if I may.
We continue to work closely with the French to address the situation in Dunkirk, but the UK and French Governments are clear that migrants in northern France who want to claim asylum, including children, should do so in France and not risk their lives by attempting to enter the UK illegally. The French Government have made clear their commitment to provide migrants, including children, who have claimed asylum in France with appropriate accommodation and support. Under the Dublin regulation, those asylum-seeking children with close family members—not just parents—in the UK can be transferred here for assessment of their claim.
We are fully committed to the timely and efficient operation of the Dublin regulation, and we support the principle of family reunification. We have engaged with partners on this issue and we will continue to do so over the coming weeks and months, to ensure that children with close family in the UK can be transferred here for assessment of their asylum claim quickly and safely. We are also working closely with EU member states to deliver this, and we have secondees in France, Greece and Italy who are supporting work on the Dublin regulation and on section 67.
I should like to make a bit of progress on section 67, which has been raised in the debate.
I am pleased to update the House today by announcing that the Home Secretary will be writing to her counterparts in France, Greece and Italy to ask for referrals of eligible children to the specified number of 350. The basis on which these transfers will be made will be published in due course. The Government have always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children. It is not and has never been the case, as has been suggested, that the Government would accept 3,000 children from Europe under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016—
I want to make this point, because this has been misrepresented on many occasions.
It has been suggested that the Government would accept 3,000 children from Europe under section 67 of the Immigration Act, or that this would be an ongoing obligation. In fact, Parliament voted against such an amendment. The legislation makes it clear that the Government have the obligation to specify the number of children to be relocated, and to relocate that number of children to the UK. That is exactly what we are doing. There has been some suggestion that my predecessor confirmed that 3,000 children would come and be resettled here. He was actually referring to the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, and we are committed to bringing 3,000 children and their families under that scheme by the end of the Parliament.
I need to make some progress, because Mr Deputy Speaker has asked me to be brief.
We consulted extensively with local authorities over several months to arrive at the number of additional children they could take under section 67. My predecessor wrote to all local authorities, as I have done, and we held a national launch event and more than 10 regional events in every part of England, as well as one in Scotland and one in Wales. More than 400 local authority representatives attended the regional events. In order to help local authorities to care for the more than 4,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children already in their care, we have launched the national transfer scheme and significantly increased funding for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children by between 20% and 28%. I should also make it clear that the 0.07% for local authority capacity is not a target; it is an indication of when it would be inappropriate to transfer further unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to that local authority.
Several local authorities, including Glasgow City Council, have said that they were not consulted on their capacity to house refugees and that they remain ready, able and willing to offer shelter to more unaccompanied children. Will the Minister clarify whether his Department regularly re-consults local authorities to maintain an up-to-date overview of the capacity to take such children?
I regularly engage with local authorities. If there are places in Scotland, please make them available for the national transfer scheme, because some local authorities in the south of England—in Kent and Croydon in particular—are over capacity. We need those places.
I will give way to the hon. Lady behind me.
“My right hon. Friend”, I hope. May I take the Minister back to his point about the number of Home Office staff in France, Greece and Italy? I think he was saying that he wanted staff to help with the scheme, but he mentioned in a meeting that I had with him that only one staff member was out there. If there were more staff, there would be more confidence that the right children were being referred under the scheme.
We have 115 staff in Greece helping the Greek authorities in several areas, not least the successful operation of the EU-Turkey agreement that is preventing children from making perilous journeys.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), who has been very persistent.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Going back to a point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), can the Minister tell me how many children with relatives in this country have outstanding applications to come here?
I can certainly let the hon. Gentleman have that number, but the Dublin process has been accelerated following the clearance of the Calais camp and the majority of the 750 children whom we brought across from Calais came under the Dublin process. When children think they have a claim under the Dublin procedure, they need to claim asylum in the country that they are in so that they can be fed into the Dublin process. It is important that they claim asylum first.
At the request of the Prime Minister, the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner visited Greece and Italy last year and reported back with recommendations. He said that the Dublin process was simply not working for children. It is taking too long and there is a lack of clear information about how the process works and of specific updates to children on their particular case. Whether there are 115 experts or the 75 that were previously requested, the system is not working, and we must ensure that it works well for children and their relatives. Will there be a response to that call-out from the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner?
It is important that the Dublin process works effectively and that it takes into account the safeguarding of children. Checks must be made to ensure not only that the family connection is genuine, but that children will be cared for. Things have not worked out for several children admitted under the Dublin protocol, which is why the specified number that was set with local authorities has left some slack in the system. There are 50 places for failed Dublin relocations, and we expect that number to be a minimum.
The Minister makes a crucial point. So many children who have come here, whether by claiming asylum or as a refugee, are put with alleged family members who are actually part of the trafficking system. That is a crucial point, and I am glad that the Government recognise it.
That is precisely—
Will the Minister give way on that exact point?
May I answer my hon. Friend’s point before I perhaps take another intervention? That is precisely why checks must be made and why we have given resources to local authorities to ensure that they can check that the children’s welfare is being cared for.
After giving such detailed analysis to the House, will the Minister provide the exact same detailed analysis in response to the point of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) about how many people have been convicted in the UK for trafficking in, say, the past year? Will he also place in the Library the evidence that has led him to emphasise the pull factors? Have all the people coming in been surveyed? I want to know what the evidence is.
We certainly take the prosecution and detection of people-trafficking crime seriously, and we are working particularly closely with our French colleagues. I was in Holland and Belgium last week to meet my opposite numbers, and we have joint operations at the ports to ensure that people-trafficking gangs can be arrested and prosecuted. I will give the hon. Lady the actual numbers, but there has been a number of successful prosecutions.
I will make a bit of progress, because I want to talk specifically about the trafficking issue that has been raised. I make it clear that the Government agree that safe and legal routes can help combat trafficking, which is why we have six other legal routes by which children can safely come to the United Kingdom, but the migration crisis has shown that pull factors such as policy changes and political messaging can influence the movement of migrants.
For example, there must be a reason why around two thirds of asylum seekers in the EU last year chose Germany and Sweden, and it is important to note that they did so after passing through many safe countries en route. Whether it is push factors or pull factors that motivate those children to come to Europe, it must surely always be in the child’s best interest to enable them to come before they need to make dangerous journeys to Europe and before they become unaccompanied. The Government’s priority is to focus on the most vulnerable children who are fleeing conflict and persecution in the region.
The Minister is laying out the Government’s priorities. Will he be clear about what he said about capacity in Greece? He said that we have 115 staff in Greece. How many of them are working on transfers to the UK?
I can give the hon. Lady the exact figures in a letter, but we have 115 people there.
Our work in Calais shows that there were only a handful of children from Syria. I note that the motion talks specifically about children from Syria, and indeed the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) talked about children fleeing Aleppo and other horrible situations in Syria. Would she therefore be surprised to know that, of the 750 children who came from Calais during the clearance, fewer than 10 came from Syria? That is why I believe we are doing the right thing by going to the refugee camps and working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to roll out similar schemes to the ones that the Australians, the Canadians and the Americans were delivering to enable those children in the most need to come to the UK.
If our aim as a country is to help those most in need who are fleeing conflict and persecution, the Government’s strategy is the right one. I welcome last week’s statement by Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in which he said that, in relation to resettlement, the UK is doing “very remarkable things.” The UK has a proud history of providing protection to those who need it, and we will continue to play our part in protecting the most vulnerable children affected by the migration crisis. The Government have taken significant steps to improve an already comprehensive approach to supporting asylum-seeking and refugee children. We will continue to be at the forefront of international efforts to address the migration crisis. The UK can be proud of its overall contribution to date, and it can be proud that we will continue to deliver on the programmes I have described.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) and others on securing this important and timely debate.
I welcome the Government’s work to support refugees by investing in camps in the region and setting up the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. I also welcome the work with the French last autumn to clear the Calais camp and get the children to safety. There has been a lot of important work, including by the Minister and the Home Secretary, and we should welcome that. I also pay tribute to their work with the French authorities in the autumn that got a lot of kids out of deeply dangerous circumstances in Calais and Dunkirk, where they were at huge risk of smuggling and trafficking, and into centres. The work brought many vulnerable children to this country and safety. This was Britain doing our bit to help some of the most vulnerable and at-risk children.
We have examples of teenage girls from Eritrea who have been abused, who have been raped and who have been through terrible ordeals but are now safe in school in Britain. We have examples of 12-year-olds from Afghanistan who are now safe with foster parents, instead of living in terrible, damp, dark, cold conditions in tents in northern France. We have teenagers now reunited with family in the UK, rather than living in such unsafe conditions.
It is because such effort—that partnership between Britain and France—was working that many of us were so shocked by the Government’s announcement on 8 February that they were not only closing the Dubs scheme, but ending the fast-track Dublin scheme, which had made so much difference to the lives of so many children and teenagers.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution. Does she agree that when we heard that news it felt as though it was going against the will of this House and against those of us who had debated, voted and in good faith believed that the Government were going to do something under the Dubs amendment?
My hon. Friend is right about that, because this was a cross-party debate and cross-party work, with all of us supporting the Dubs amendment, just as it was cross-party pressure that got the Government to set up the 20,000 Syrian refugee scheme in the first place. There has been strong support from people in all parts of the House, and it was not for helping for only six months. That is the real problem with what the Government have done: it took them several months to get the Dubs scheme going in the first place, it has been running for only about six months and they have decided to pull the plug. I believe that is not in the spirit of the Dubs amendment that was agreed and passed last summer.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the speech she is making and the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate. Does she agree that the shock we feel in this House at the abandonment of the Dubs amendment is echoed in our constituencies? Many of my constituents have written to me specifically about the plight of children. In a world that is closing the doors on so many different peoples’ migration, the plight of these children has really inspired our constituents around the country.
My hon. Friend is right to say that many people across the country are deeply disappointed by this action, because the scheme was working. It was saving lives and people’s futures. Charities told the Home Affairs Committee that they estimated that there had been a drop in the number of children and teenagers trying to get here illegally during the period in the autumn when a lot of this support was put in. We were therefore reducing the number of dangerous illegal journeys by providing the safe legal routes and undertaking the managed work with other countries. That is crucial in terms of clearing the camp in Calais to prevent the trafficking, the modern slavery and the dangerous illegal journeys.
Ministers have given four reasons for closing the Dubs scheme. The first is that it encourages traffickers. The second is that the French want us to close it. The third is that local authorities have no more capacity. The fourth is that the Government have delivered on the Dubs amendment. Let me take each in turn.
First, the Home Affairs Committee heard evidence yesterday from UNICEF, Citizens UK, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and one of the Children’s Commissioners. Those agencies are all doing important work with child refugees in Greece and Italy and along the French coast. All were categoric that the ending of the Dubs scheme will increase, not reduce, the trafficking risk, and that by taking away the safe and legal routes it will increase the number of children and young people who end up in the arms of traffickers and smugglers’ gangs, not reduce it.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) and I visited Dunkirk and Calais on Monday. In Dunkirk, we met 13 and 14-year-olds who had been in the Calais camps. They had gone to the French centre and into safe accommodation, but for all kinds of complicated reasons their claims had been turned down and they had lost hope and got lost in the system. They are now back in Dunkirk in a really dangerous situation. I am really at a loss to know how the camp is allowed to continue as it is, because it is clearly being run by a smuggling gang—there is no doubt about what is happening in that Dunkirk camp. Two teenage boys we met were sleeping in a hut with 80 adult men. It was deeply unsafe, and when we asked them they said that they felt unsafe. They had gone back there because they had lost hope in any chance of the legal system getting them to safety.
My feeling is that that is terrible—it is really bad—but why are the French not doing anything about it? Why should it be us? Why are the French not dealing with that situation? They should be, because it is in France, which is not an unsafe country. Lots of people live there quite safely, so why are we worried about us doing something about it when in that situation it should be the French?
Of course the French should be dealing with the trafficking that is taking place in Dunkirk, and there should be enforcement. Frankly, though, other countries need to do something as well, because we can be in no doubt that the gang that is operating there, taking families across from Dunkirk to Britain, will have a lot of operations in Britain as well. There ought to be co-ordinated police action against that trafficking gang, because that is absolutely important.
The joint action between Britain and France to get the children into French centres was working in the autumn. Some of the children were then going into the asylum system and safety in France, and rightly so; some of the others—perhaps the most vulnerable or those with family in Britain—were getting sanctuary in Britain. The two teenagers we spoke to both said that they have family in Britain. They had been turned down, but given no reason—there was no piece of paper and nothing in the system—for why they had been turned down. As a result, they had turned up in Dunkirk and in Calais again. We will see more and more children arriving in Calais and Dunkirk and going back, at risk, pushed by the fact that the safe legal route has been taken away.
I rise to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham). I was with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) in Dunkirk on Monday, and I came away thoroughly depressed and really angry with the French authorities for letting this happen again. It took me a few days to digest what I had seen, and I came away feeling that it was not right and that they should be doing more, but the point is that they are not. If we do not work further downstream, in Greece and Italy, the children will continue to come and they will come back to Calais. Dunkirk is like groundhog day—it is Calais II. When they come back in volumes, as they will, it will then become our problem.
The hon. Lady is right. We need to prevent young people from ending up in Calais and Dunkirk in the first place. That means working through the Dublin and Dubs schemes, whether in France or, better still, in Greece and Italy, to prevent them from travelling in the first place. We need all countries to work together to share responsibility for these deeply vulnerable young people.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I am going to make some progress because I am conscious of the time.
Secondly, the Minister said that the French have urged us to stop the Dubs scheme, but according to what President Hollande has said, the evidence is that the reverse is true. I am worried that the co-operation we had in the autumn appears to have broken down.
Thirdly, it has been said that local authorities do not have capacity, but that was not what the Select Committee heard in evidence yesterday. The Local Government Association said that it had not been consulted specifically on Dubs; it had been consulted on the national transfer scheme. We should have more detailed consultation on Dubs. We heard from local councils that they wanted to offer more places but those places had not been taken up, and that if local authorities all met the 0.07% target that the Government have said is appropriate, there would be 3,000 more places on top of those already taken by those children who have arrived spontaneously.
I am going to make some progress, because Mr Deputy Speaker wants to move on.
Fourthly, the Government have said that we have met the spirit of the Dubs amendment, but that is simply not the case. Not only have we not met the spirit of Dubs, but the Government are failing again on the Dublin agreement. The expedited system that was temporarily in place in France was working. Ministers have said that they will learn lessons from that, but they do not seem to be doing so.
The Minister said in his answer to the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) that there were somehow 115 people in Greece, but we were told by the charities yesterday that there was only one person working on child transfers in Greece, one in Italy and one in France. That is not enough even to review the Dublin cases that were turned down and that the Home Office said it would review. I do not see how it can review those cases if none of those children has paperwork, has been given any formal response about why their case has been turned down, or has a process through which to apply to have it reviewed. The Government have done some good things. I ask them not to rip them up now.
This is what one of the child refugees who we helped said:
“Many of us have been traded like cattle between groups of smugglers...many of us know someone who died.”
“Assaulting women, sexually abusing children—the smugglers are really not nice people.”
We created some safe legal routes that prevented the traffickers and the illegal, dangerous routes. They were working. That approach did not solve the whole problem—it addressed only a limited part of the refugee crisis—but it was about Britain doing its bit. It was about Britain being better than this. We in this House were all proud of it. I really urge the Minister to reopen the Dubs scheme, reinstate a proper, effective Dublin process and let Britain do its bit to help refugees again, just as we did for Alf Dubs, generations ago.
Some 30,000 unaccompanied children entered Greece and Italy last year. Are we simply to leave them there, while this great country, which for hundreds of years has had a tradition of offering asylum to those fleeing persecution, stands back and washes its hands of their fate? I do not believe that it is in the interests of this country, of its international reputation or of its moral sense of self-worth and dignity for us simply to stand back and say, “That is not our problem—it is yours.” I completely accept that great work has been done in the region to assist those who are in such a plight, but I do not believe that we as a nation can afford the damage to our reputation that is currently happening throughout Europe, because we are being seen to fail and fall down in the obligations—modest as they are—that we have undertaken, in international law and otherwise, to assist with the plight of unaccompanied children in Europe.
As I understand it, the Dublin regulation requires us, as a matter of law, to deal in the first instance with any application for asylum that is made by a child who has family receiving international protection in this country. That is an obligation under international law. It is incumbent on us, incumbent on this House and incumbent on the Government to ensure that that obligation is not simply paid lip service to, but is made practical and effective. That can be done only if we reach out to those tens of thousands of people in Greece and Italy and if we look actively to find those who are entitled to be here under international law and whom the Government, on behalf of this House and the nation, have promised to deal with because it is our obligation.
I fear for the reputation of this country when it assumes an obligation and does not provide the means to realise it.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is making an immensely powerful speech. Does he agree that it is not just our legal, but our moral obligation to give refuge to refugees? That is one of our best defences against the tyrants, the bullies and the terrorists who oppose the values that Britain stands for.
I agree with the right hon. Lady, but let us leave aside arguments of conscience and compassion. Let us concentrate on our legal obligations. I say that to the hon. Lady not because I disavow or seek to reduce the importance of the moral arguments, but because moral arguments do not always appear in the same light to everybody.
The arguments about the push and pull factors that are sometimes used surround the problem with what I understand are difficult equations and judgments about the practicalities and complexities of whether we should take children or not. But sometimes we can surround a problem with a web of complication. Sometimes, I would prefer to be a fly than a spider, and the plight of the child is one example. The plight of a child transcends the complexities of push and pull factors.
Nobody is suggesting for a moment that we should take every single one of the 30,000 children a year who enter Greece and Italy. All that the Dubs amendment meant was that we should take a modest few. Those of us on this side of the House who voted for that amendment believed that we would take a modest few, but we did not believe that it would be only 350.
Let me return to the question of our obligations. It is not in the interests of our reputation as a country to be seen to be a nation parsimonious and mean-spirited in the fulfilment of an obligation. We should have in Greece and Italy now not only the valiant single lady, Miss Malahyde, who seems to be doing tremendous work—dozens of Home Office officials should be actively searching for the children whom it is our legal obligation to find and process.
The dispiriting and depressing issue is that back on 21 April, the then Minister for Immigration explained that
“The teams we send to Greece will include experts in supporting vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied children and those trained to tackle people trafficking. This will help ensure that vulnerable people, including children, are identified and can access asylum procedures as quickly as possible.”
Now we hear from the Red Cross that it is taking 10 months to process a child’s case. It is our legal and practical responsibility to have ensured that those 75 experts were about protecting the vulnerable, not getting rid of them through to Turkey.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is our duty to process the children and to deal with those who have connections and family in this country.
Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?
No, I must make progress, given the time.
It is our duty to find those children, and I do not accept for a moment that a single person is sufficient to make our obligation effective.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that we should be doing much more in Greece and Italy—not, I repeat, to take many tens of thousands of children, but simply to interpret our legal duty according to the spirit and manner in which this country ought to be interpreting it: making it real, practical and effective. It is the cruellest of charades to acknowledge an obligation and not to carry it out with a full heart and a full sense of responsibility.
I say to the Minister from his side of the House: let him not think that all of us on the Government side—and I do not believe, properly interpreted, many of us—would feel that we should stand aside and do nothing for those children who arrive in Greece and Italy. I do not believe that that is our party’s approach to this problem.
I ask the Minister to do more for those children in Greece and Italy and make practical and effective our obligations under international law—whether under Dubs or Dublin. We need to be seen to do more. The plight of a child, wherever they are—in Europe or the middle east—is much more important morally and legally than the kinds of arguments sometimes deployed about pull and push factors:
“Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me”.—[Applause.]
Order. Many Members want to get in. I cannot have everybody clapping, otherwise we will not get to the end—there are too many good speeches.
I congratulate those hon. Members who have managed to secure this most appropriate debate. It is a pleasure to follow such passionate speeches, including that made by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox).
We reveal who we truly are in the face of adversity. As we are now facing the worst refugee crisis since world war two, it is time to show to ourselves and to the world who we are as a nation. Are we going to show that the UK is shameless, heartless and faithless, and that our previous commitments mean nothing to us? Three of my constituents—Kiranjot, who is 10 years old, and Yahye and Hussein, aged nine—who attend Havelock Primary School, came to Parliament yesterday with a letter for the Prime Minister about the Dubs children, saying
“let refugees in so they aren’t in danger.”
These children appealed to the simple decency of humanity that this Government appear to have forgotten. If they can see how we should act, why cannot the Government?
I call on the Government to reconsider their decision to close the Dubs scheme at 350 children and at least return to their original commitment of 3,000 children. The announcement that the Dubs scheme would be limited to the transfer of only 350 children is a breach of faith regarding this Government’s commitment to match the scale of the current children’s crisis in Europe. Although the Government have been laudably generous in their bilateral financial contributions to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, they should not forget the crisis in Europe. Some 95,000 unaccompanied and incredibly vulnerable children are estimated to be stranded across Europe. Such a betrayal of our commitment will undermine our relationship with other European countries. Such a small-minded and selfish action undermines the Government’s promises that the UK will continue to be part of a European and global community that seeks international solutions to international problems, and in which every country must play a role.
What conversations has the Home Office had with the French, Italian and Greek Governments? How have they reacted to the Government’s decision to take such a small number of children? We have a commitment to our shared humanity, to the ideals of human rights, and to do all in our power to help those who are faced with abuse and extreme deprivation. We cannot turn our backs on those in need, claiming that it is not our responsibility. We cannot bow to our selfish instincts, arguing that we do not have enough to help. We cannot surrender to fear by declaring that it is too difficult. Rabbi Janet Darley, spokeswoman for the Safe Passage campaign, has pointed out that the Government’s claim that local councils are too stretched to accommodate more refugees is based on threadbare figures that are nine months out of date. The Government claim that the 217 councils in the UK responsible for children cannot even handle two each. This is drastically underestimating the capabilities and dedication of those selfless men and women who devote their lives to public service. My own council, Ealing, along with the council leaders of Hammersmith and Fulham, Gedling and Camden, are just a few of those who have already called on the Government to re-consult council leaders to assess their decisions. More funding should be made available to these councils, if and where it is requested, in order to continue Britain’s proud tradition of providing shelter to those most in need.
It is crucial that we do not think about this problem as simply numbers on a page. While 3,000 might not look that different from 350 when written down, we must remember that each number is a child facing the squalor and dangers of overcrowded makeshift camps across Europe. Each number is a child facing the dangers of child prostitution rings, exploitation by human traffickers, and the threat of rape, abuse, starvation and disease.
It is deeply concerning that the Home Secretary talks about a “pull factor” that supposedly incentivises children to undertake the dangerous journey to Europe and provides business for human traffickers. There is no evidence for this argument in the investigative work carried out by numerous charities and non-governmental organisations, including UNICEF, Help Refugees, Save the Children, and Citizen’s UK’s Safe Passage. In fact, it is when safe and legal routes to the UK are blocked that human traffickers are encouraged.
When such routes are blocked, the refugees do not stop attempting to make it into the UK. Instead, children are left with the awful choice between risking their lives by attempting to jump aboard lorries, as did the 14-year-old Afghani boy killed last year, and relying upon human traffickers. By restricting safe and legal routes, the Government encourage human traffickers. Reports by Save the Children show the horrors of this situation, with children as young as 13 forced into prostitution to earn their passage.
In preparation for this debate, I spoke to someone who was brought over on the Kindertransport in the late 1930s. He impressed upon me the importance of thinking about the worth and potential of every human life, and the fact that every life wasted is a huge loss to humanity. He stressed how the vast majority of the 10,000 children who arrived in England were from disadvantaged backgrounds and arrived in the UK with very little. Many were unable to speak English. He asks us to look at what those individuals have been able to achieve since. Lord Dubs himself is an example, but he also told me how he met two Nobel prize winners at Kindertransport children reunions, as well as numerous doctors, lawyers and business owners. In the light of the current European refugee crisis, it is crucial that the Government continue their commitment to the Dublin regulations, so how do they intend to uphold this commitment?
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, for taking a little longer than requested. In order to show to the world and to ourselves that the UK is a caring and compassionate society that values human life, we need to reopen the Dubs amendment and commit to rescuing more refugees stranded in Italy and Greece.
We have heard some very passionate speeches and, I am sure, heartfelt views, but we ought to get back to reality and exactly what is happening. I think that some Members just did not listen to what the Minister said or to the statistics he gave about the numbers of people being brought into this country.
I have not been to Dunkirk or Calais, or to Greece or Italy, to see the refugees there, but I have been to Jordan and Turkey, where I have seen the camps in which children and adults are living. Nobody in their right mind wants to be in a refugee camp. It is not somewhere any of us want to go, but it could be us at some point. We might need to do that—I hope not—but any country in the world could find itself in that situation.
Given the desperate situation that the Syrian people are in, they are in a pretty safe place in those refugee camps. They are being fed, they are being given a health service, and their children are being given an education. Many people do not realise this, but the Jordanian Government have said that any child on Jordanian soil, of whatever nationality—they have Palestinian refugees as well as others—will receive the same education that their own children are receiving. This is not the case for the trafficked children who have been taken across the continent to come to Britain. As they have been trafficked, they are out of education and do not have a health service. They should have been settled in the refugee camps because people are getting a pretty good deal there. Interestingly, the Azraq camp is not full—there is plenty of space there—so it is not as though there is nowhere for people to go.
I mean this with no disrespect to my hon. Friend—I completely understand her point—but the problem is that Europe reacted too late, so these families and children had already made the journey to Greece and Italy and are trapped there. If we do not contribute, who will take responsibility for them?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but does she not recognise that France, Italy and Greece are safe countries? They are not Nazi Germany, where Lord Dubs came from. He escaped from being murdered. These children and families are not under threat of murder—they are in safe countries whose Governments should be respecting and dealing with them under all sorts of international rules.
Going back to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, every building at the Azraq camp has been provided by IKEA. Nobody gives it credit for supporting so many of these refugees. In the desert, all the solar panels that are heating and lighting the buildings have been given to the region by IKEA to help these young people. We are providing a lot of the education and health services.
I will not give way again because I do not have long to speak.
We have provided the bore hole to provide safe water for the people there. They are safe. We should be saying to them, “Stay there.” Most of them do not want to come here. Why would they want to when they can speak their own language and do not need to learn English?
Why are all these people being pulled to Calais, Dunkirk and other places? They came recently. They were cleared in France, as we have heard. There was an agreement last year whereby those refugees were sorted out legitimately. More have come since then—many more—so one cannot say that there is no pull factor.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but I will not give way again because I do not have long.
I believe that we should be supporting those camps. Britain has done its bit—£2.3 billion is not insignificant. We should be proud of the money we have put in there and proud of the fact that we have protected those people. There is a rule of law in those camps—it is not perfect, but it is not perfect here either. We need to provide as much as we can to keep the people in the region, because most Syrians want to go home once it is safe to do so. If they come here, they will not be able to go home as easily. I understand the sentiments of what people say, but I think that we should stop being so sentimental and look at what is the best thing to do for these families and children, which is to keep them in the region—and that is what this Government are doing.
I was shocked to hear the comments made by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) about sentimentality, so I will start by asking the House a very simple question: what must it be like to be a child refugee? To deal with sentimentality, let us try to imagine that. Can any of us actually imagine the mental and physical trauma experienced by someone escaping their home country under fear of persecution?
Their departure from their home is involuntary and abrupt. Resettlement involves danger such as crossing deserts, mountains and seas. It can involve being confronted with additional conflict along the journey and going without basic resources such as food, water and shelter. Escaping by sea brings additional hardships, such as extreme weather, the loss of other passengers, witnessing loved ones drown or freeze to death, and fear. When children reach their final destination, the risks continue and in many cases worsen. Alone and afraid, vulnerable children are at the greatest risk of trafficking, neglect, sexual exploitation and physical abuse.
I have heard Members say today that some refugee camps have lots of space and that they are adequate. However, in the informal refugee camps that we know about in Greece and Italy, 90% of people do not have an adequate place to sleep, such as a tent, and there is little in the way of washing facilities. Many children in Greece find themselves in detention centres, where they are made to live and sleep in crowded, dirty, rat-infested cells, often without mattresses, and deprived of basic sanitation, hygiene and privacy. It has been reported that some boys are even turning to prostitution to keep themselves alive. If I am sentimental for bringing that up, I am very proud to be so, because those are the basic facts of what is going on in some of the worst refugee centres.
If we are talking about Greece and it being rat infested with no mattresses, whose fault is that? That is Greece’s fault. It should be helping those children.
The simple fact of the matter is that the world is a small place and we all belong in it as one human race. We have to recognise that we need to support partners abroad, as well as look at opportunities to provide support here at home.
We have spent £28 million in Greece to support migrants and refugees through partners such as the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration and the Red Cross. That support has reached 250,000 people in Greece.
I thank the Minister for raising that point. That £28 million is to be saluted—it is very important—but it is not what we are discussing today. We are discussing the issue of refugees coming to this country.
According to UNICEF, more than 30,000 unaccompanied children fleeing war and persecution arrived by sea in Greece and Italy last year. Only eight of those children were transferred to the UK, where they had family links. Our country is quite simply failing to play our part in caring for those children.
It was only last year that we were told by the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, that “a specified number” of vulnerable refugee children would be given a home here under the Dubs amendment to immigration legislation. Lords Dubs, as we know, was himself rescued from Nazi persecution and brought to the UK in 1939 by Sir Nicholas Winton.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way: he is being very generous compared with the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), who spoke immediately before him. Does he agree that the Government’s refusal to live up to what people expected them to do when they accepted the Dubs amendment is a betrayal not only of the thousands of children who will not be able to come here, but of the many hundreds of thousands of our constituents who wrote to us, campaigned and signed petitions? They expected the Government to live up to the commitment for which they all campaigned.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I agree with him completely. In fact, I received emails leading up to today’s debate that made exactly the same point.
It now emerges that we will take only 350 children, including the 200 who have already come over from Calais. We have been told by the Minister that the door is still open, but, to be frank, the impression is that it has been slammed shut. The UK Government have stooped to a new low, targeting the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, namely unaccompanied children.
Even the timing of ditching the Dubs scheme was appalling. The Home Secretary cynically ditched it on the eve of the most recent parliamentary recess. Lord Dubs condemned the move, saying that the bad news was buried
“while most eyes were focused on the Brexit debacle”.
In her statement, the Home Secretary claimed that the scheme created a “pull factor” for unaccompanied children to make perilous journeys to the UK and, therefore, increased the risk that they would fall into the hands of traffickers. That has been touched on several times today. She said:
“we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe”.—[Official Report, 9 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 637.]
Why would she say that? Why on earth would anyone think that we only have pull factors, when I have already described so many of the push factors? The real message that my constituents and constituents across the country are getting from this is, “Not in my back yard.” There is no evidence that there is a pull factor. In fact, relocation services that provide safe and legal routes to the UK for those seeking asylum disrupt the people traffickers, who seek to profit from smuggling desperate people across borders.
I urge the Minister not only to allow the Dubs scheme to continue, so that the UK receives at least 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees, but to increase the total number of refugees he intends to settle under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement programme. I remind the House that Scotland is not full up. The Scottish Government have always said they are willing to take their fair share of refugees and have called on the UK Government time and again to increase their efforts to respond to this humanitarian crisis. That is a cross-party stance that has wide public support.
My hon. Friend clearly shares my sense that the people of this country believe that we can do more and that we absolutely should be doing more to help these desperate unaccompanied children. Will he join me in pointing to the example of my local council, Argyll and Bute, which with the help of the Argyll community housing association has resettled dozens of Syrian refugees and their families on the Isle of Bute very successfully? It, among many others, stands ready to do more.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Another thing about Scotland is that, as was said by one of our famous writers, McIlvanney, it is a “mongrel nation”—a nation made up of people from all over the world. We are now part of that process.
That touches on my next point, which is that 200 public figures have even signed an open letter to the Prime Minister, branding the decision on the Dubs scheme “truly shameful”. Human rights charities have been united in their condemnation of it.
The blame for the decision to reduce access for unaccompanied refugee children seems to have been shifted by the Government on to councils, which have either refused to take part in resettlement schemes or argued that they do not have the money. The real reason is that the Government did not consult councils properly about the scheme in the first place. In London alone, at least eight councillors have signed an open letter urging Theresa May to reconsider the decision to take this lifeline away from thousands of child refugees. Councils across the country are ready to step up. I heard the point the Minister made and I will urge my council to come forward if there is space to do so, as I am sure will everybody else here.
Order. We can take the intervention, but I say gently to the Minister that he spoke early, which is not the norm in these debates and is ordinarily to be deprecated. This may be an exception. He spoke at considerable length, which was possibly to the benefit of the House, but should not now constantly intervene. This is a debate for Back-Bench Members and that must be understood.
While Theresa May has closed the doors of the UK to unaccompanied refugee children, she is still determined to fling them open them to Donald Trump. Let us ponder on that for a moment. It is estimated that the potential visit to the UK by President Trump will cost over £10 million—the most expensive state visit in history. If there is concern about local authority funding, here is part of the solution: cancel the exorbitant, wasteful, unwanted and undeserved presidential state visit and not only will there be funds for local authorities, but it will send out the most powerful message to everyone that refugees are welcome in our country, regardless of where and what their background is.
This is a choice. Which side of history does the Prime Minister wish to be on? Does she want to warmly welcome refugees to our country, or does she, like Trump, want to turn her back on those fleeing war and persecution. Let us not forget that in his first week as President, he pursued a ban on all Syrian refugees entering the US and a halt on arrivals from a string of predominantly Muslim countries.
Who do unaccompanied children in Greece and Italy now turn to? The mental and physical health of these children is deteriorating. They are despondent and broken. This Government’s decision will create a vacuum that will be filled by exploitation and people smugglers—the only option that many of these children now have.
Those children are treated like an immigration statistic. If the Government are not willing to help them, they are responsible when a child turns to a smuggler, goes missing or is killed in an accident. I asked at the beginning of my speech what it must be like to be a child refugee. None of us in the Chamber can come close to imagining the fear, the terror, the loneliness, the vulnerability. I therefore urge the Minister to continue the Dubs scheme to enable the UK to receive a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe, and to do the right thing and look to increase the number of refugees overall. To do otherwise is shameful and will not be forgotten.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for her speech, and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) for her work and her fearless attitude to ensuring that Ministers are left in no doubt about the strength of her feelings on the matter. I also pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), who spoke incredibly powerfully.
As we have heard, more than 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived by sea in Greece and Italy in 2016, but only eight were transferred to the UK for family reunification, and I am told that none was transferred under the Dubs scheme. As the Minister set out, the Government have been generous in supporting refugees and those seeking asylum. However, his speech was a series of numbers and schemes, and that suggests why there is confusion and concern in the debate. There are lots of schemes and lots of numbers, and the Government could help by being much clearer about how many people are coming to the UK under which scheme. Perhaps the Chamber is not the right place for that, and Ministers could write to colleagues of all parties and continue to keep us updated. One example of the confusion is the number of Home Office staff who are in Greece and Italy. We have been given one number in meetings and another was given today. It would be helpful if hon. Members had more clarity about the numbers involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) talked about the responsibilities of Greece and Italy, but the point is that hundreds of children have a legal right to be in the UK and have had to continue their journey alone. They have experienced further trauma, including trafficking, sexual exploitation, forced labour and freezing and unsanitary conditions because of bureaucracy and long waiting times—often more than a year.
As we have also heard, in Calais the UK managed to deal with large numbers of children in a short time, which shows that when the political will is there, it is possible to make the systems work. I think that the Minister said—again, it would helpful if we had clarity—that the Dubs scheme has not been terminated but that the number has been set for this year. If that is the case, and the Dubs scheme will continue, that is welcome, but that should be clarified, not just for the benefit of Members but for those outside the House who show great interest, compassion and concern and who care about what is happening to the scheme.
We also call on the Government to consult local authorities on up-to-date numbers on capacity for transfer and to agree to continue consulting local authorities about their capacity for looking after unaccompanied children. The Government should consult every financial year, rather than just as a one-off.
I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. She agrees with me that the money follows the child so that the local authority gets paid for it. That did not come across in the speech of the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law).
My hon. Friend is right that the money follows the child, as I understand it. There is money there. As Members of Parliament, we know that local authorities are under financial pressure, but a significant amount of money follows each child, so local authorities should have the resources.
It would be helpful if the Government published the number of children that each local authority has already agreed to accept so that Members of Parliament, local communities, non-governmental organisations and charities can work with those authorities to welcome the children and ascertain whether the number of places can be increased.
I urge the Minister to use Members of Parliament who have an interest in this issue. From my time in government I know that officials are sometimes reluctant to involve constituency MPs, but we are able to ask questions of local councillors and local authorities. The Minister is not listening at the moment—perhaps he will read the transcript instead—but I urge him to use Members of Parliament to interrogate their local authorities on what capacity they have offered, whether they can offer more and what more we can do to get messages back to the Home Office if there are queries, questions and a reluctance on the part of local authorities to get involved in schemes.
I pay tribute to the charity Baca in my constituency, which has long worked with unaccompanied child asylum seekers and refugees. I hope its expertise—I am sure there are many other charities like it across the country—is being used, but I fear that that is not the case. Again, it is up to Ministers to challenge the Department to use their expertise and let them respond to this crisis and need.
Other hon. Members have mentioned that there are individuals in their constituencies who have wanted to step forward to help. What is being done to make use of their desire to help?
I want to again raise the issue of money following the placement. The evidence in the briefing from the Local Government Association suggests that the amount of money that follows a child is actually about 50%, so it is not true to say that councils are fully reimbursed for the investment they make.
I do not think I said that councils are fully reimbursed, but money does follow the child. I have had some pretty strenuous arguments with local authorities, both as a local MP and as a Minister, and sometimes the interpretation of whether there is sufficient money can be at variance. But let us have that debate. Let us work out what the numbers should be. Let us not just accept it when local authorities say they do not have the capacity, ability or money to deal with the situation.
In the time available I want to move on to what we can do to help Greece and Italy deal with the issue of unaccompanied children who are on their shores. There is more that we can do, or the Government can do, to fulfil the spirit and letter of the Dubs amendment. We need to work with the authorities in Greece and Italy to set out clearly the Dubs scheme, the criteria and the numbers that need to be clarified, so that the authorities in those countries know exactly what the UK is able to offer, and the expertise and the people we have on the ground.
There is a danger in this debate—I think the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) talked about this—of talking about numbers rather than people. We are talking about young people who have their futures ahead of them. Another hon. Member talked about this being a smaller world, which we know is a challenge for many of our constituents. But people and stories are at the heart of this debate.
I want to make two more points. First, UNICEF contacted me today to give the example of Aamir, a 16-year-old Afghan child with a degenerative bone condition, who could be eligible for the Dubs scheme. Doctors in Greece advise that he needs urgent surgery. However, the necessary treatment cannot be given in Greece until he has finished growing. He needs specialist treatment with a paediatric doctor here in the UK. This highlights the spirit of the Dubs amendment: helping extremely vulnerable unaccompanied children who are forced to live alone in camps and in terrible conditions as they have been forced from their home. Aamir is now living in a UNICEF-supported shelter in Athens, and UNICEF is working with him on his application. He was forced to flee his home in Afghanistan when his parents, members of the Hazara ethnic group, were killed by the Taliban. He fled with his grandmother, who passed away on the journey.
Secondly, I am going to disagree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon just on this point: I think there is scope in this debate to think about our moral obligations and our compassion. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire said she hoped that the situation these children are fleeing from never arises here. Of course we hope that, but it could. As a parent, I know that if my son needed refuge I would want to know that the world was offering him safety. That is what this debate is about.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and others on securing this very timely debate.
I speak today not only from a position of experience, having fostered a young Afghan refugee and provided lodgings for a number of refugees who presented without parents, but as an Opposition Member and as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which only yesterday took evidence from NGOs and senior leaders working in this area. That evidence was very shocking, but the words of the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Councillor Stephen Cowan, stuck with me. He described to us his understanding of refugee camps in Europe: he described them as
“the closest thing to hell for a child”.
My foster son, Ikram, and other young men have told me many stories to try to make me understand the desperation that they experienced. I do not believe that we can all comprehend what that desperation must feel like. For me, the way to try to understand it was to imagine what it must be like to be in “the closest thing to hell”. What must it be like to be alone, away from everything you have ever known, to wonder whether your family are still alive, to wonder about the things that you have left behind, and still to be so unsure whether there is a light at the end of the tunnel? How must those children feel, to flee one hell for another, to experience hunger, cold, insecurity and potential rape, abuse and exploitation—all against the backdrop of a journey on which many have lost their lives in front of them? This is the reality: this is about people. I stand here today as an extremely blessed individual, knowing that my children are safe—safe from bombs, safe from being shot at, safe from being raped, safe from being exploited and trafficked—but, sadly, that is not the reality for all.
What has been the response of our country, Great Britain, to this crisis? Our Government rightly passed the Dubs amendment, which, unlike other routes, was based not on legality or obligation, but on morality. It was about helping some of the most at-risk and vulnerable children to find safety and security because that was the right thing to do. However, the numbers speak for themselves: just eight children have been transferred from Greece and Italy in the past year, none of them through the Dubs programme. While we all welcome the Government’s other commitments, especially to Syrian aid and the Syrian relocation programme, the Dubs amendment was about much more than that. It was about identifying and supporting the most vulnerable children with no legal route, and transferring them to a place of safety. That the Government should set a timeline now because they say we do not have spaces available is an absolute disgrace.
As we heard yesterday, there is no way we have exhausted our commitment to those immensely vulnerable children who arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016. Councils are coming forward and saying that they still have spaces. By closing that route, we will push the most vulnerable, who have no safe route, back into the hands of those who will exploit and abuse them. That we should simply turn our backs on the Dubs programme now, when we have not transferred even a 10th of the number that was suggested, is beyond belief. If the Government think that the programme provides an incentive for lone children to come to Europe, they clearly have no grasp of the situation that is driving children to make this perilous journey in the first place.
Let me share with the House some of the evidence that was given to us in the Home Affairs Committee. George Gabriel, who established Safe Passage 18 months ago, said:
“From our perspective, particularly in Greece, the case for continued and rolling provision around the Dubs amendment is especially compelling. There are 2,300 unaccompanied minors in Greece. Of those 2,300, only 1,256 have spaces in any Government shelter, so just over 1,000 are street homeless. We estimate that about 48% of those 2,300 have no family link anywhere else in Europe, and so in the broadest brush strokes might be eligible for transfer under the provisions of the Dubs amendment.
We took a sample of 128 of those children in Athens over the past couple of weeks. Of 128, 64 were identified as at risk of sexual abuse, 8% had themselves been trafficked and 19% had post-traumatic stress disorder, so we are extremely concerned about the situation of those children. Clearly, there is a greater need than is to be met through the remaining places offered by the Government. We think that the idea that Sir Nicholas Winton managed to transfer 669 children essentially on his own, and that he topped the efforts of our entire country, is shameful and a mistaken choice.”
We also heard:
“The French agencies we work with report that about 7,900 people were transferred from Calais to reception centres all across France. The total figure for children at that point of demolition was about 2,200.”
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that the attitude and language of many in the Government— although not all Conservatives, as we have heard some good speeches from the Conservative Benches—is completely wrong? My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who is not in his place, made the point at the beginning of the refugee crisis that this is an opportunity to take child refugees and develop them for the rest of the world.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I absolutely agree.
Lily Caprani, deputy executive director of UNICEF, had this to say on the business model of trafficking:
“There is one way to destroy the business model and that is to provide safe and legal routes to children. They turn to people traffickers when they have no other option. For obvious reasons there are many ways to prevent children being vulnerable to an interest in paying smugglers or in trafficking—which is often what happens after smuggling becomes unaffordable from countries of origin—which is to do with investing our development assistance money, which we do very well in this country, to prevent children being in that position in the first place. Once children have arrived in Europe, we know, they will only turn to traffickers when there is no system working for them and when they have lost faith and hope, have been let down, do not feel able to trust the advice they are getting or do not have any advice whatever. George made a very strong point earlier on. The cancellation of the Dubs scheme is a good win for the people traffickers—there is money to be made, because children will try to get to their families or to places of safety one way or another.”
To me, what this comes down to is the fact that we have a choice between doing something and doing nothing. We will never grasp or comprehend the lack of choices that these children have. I say this to the Government: “Commit. Commit to what we actually pass in this House. Don’t just pay it lip service. Don’t just change direction and say, ‘This programme will continue as it is,’ because turning our back on the 90% of children that we committed to help is beyond a disgrace.” What we have done was not enough then, and it is not enough now, and we must do more.
Order. May I ask everybody to try to help each other? If Members can stick to seven minutes, that is great, but it is not an obligation at this stage. There is no fixed limit, and I can understand that the Member who is about to speak and has had no notice may feel aggrieved. He must make his own judgment and will not be stopped.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, I shall keep my speech to only an hour—no, I appreciate the guidance, and I appreciate you not imposing a time limit.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this important debate and the tone in which she moved it. I also congratulate the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), on talking in particular about trafficking, which is the area I probably have the most expertise in and would like to touch on, perhaps at a different angle.
There was some comment earlier about not enough money being given to councils for unaccompanied children. I think the figures for this year are that £41,610 is given from central Government to local government for an unaccompanied child, which is an increase of 20% or 30% in the past year, so I do not think it is fair to say that the problem—if there is a problem—relates to money.
May I say at the outset that I do not in any way suggest that anybody who does not agree with my views does not care for the children? I have, however, been looking at the problem of vulnerable children who have been trafficked since 2005, and when we had Anthony Steen in this House, he used to talk endlessly about human trafficking when nobody would even accept that it existed. I had the great honour to follow him as chairman of the all-party group on human trafficking and modern slavery in 2005.
We lagged behind in dealing with human trafficking until the coalition Government came to power, and I give great credit to the previous Prime Minister in this regard. One of his greatest legacies was what he did on human trafficking. He set up the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and we now have an independent commissioner to challenge what the Government do in this area. I have to say that the then Home Secretary used to annoy me enormously because she would not get on and do what we wanted, but in fact she checked it all out. She worked it all out and then she did it to the letter. Now, as Prime Minister, she seems to be doing that in another field in which I would like her to press on.
This is an exceptionally complicated issue. Human traffickers are the most evil people in the world. They do not care for one minute about vulnerable children. They do not care about human life. They are quite happy to cut the finger off a child whose relative—the older child or the mother—is in this country being trafficked. They have no hesitation in executing victims in front of others, to terrify them. They are gun runners and drug peddlers, but they have worked out that they can earn far more from human trafficking.
I have always taken the view that the best way to deal with this is to stop the trafficking, rather than by looking after the victims afterwards, and we have worked across Europe to do that. I have travelled throughout Europe and to other parts of the world to discover the best ways to deal with the problem. One of the countries that led on tackling human trafficking before we did was Italy. We have to ask ourselves how we can stop the traffickers. They operate only because there is a demand.
The previous Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that we should look after vulnerable people close to the region they come from. I think that, for every 3,000 unaccompanied children we look after here, we could look after 800,000 in the region for the same cost. We have to worry about the numbers; that is incredible. If we look after them in the region, there is no need for them to be trafficked. There is an argument about whether there is a safe route. Yes, there is. We are taking 20,000 or more from the region, and that is the way to do it.
I can understand people’s feelings about unaccompanied children in Europe, but they are in safe countries. Greece, Italy and France are completely safe—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry, but Mr Speaker has asked us to be brief. This is an issue that we should be able to debate all day. I was making the point that that is where the help should be. We are putting money in, and other European countries should be doing the same. We should have first-class facilities in Italy and Greece. They know how to do this in Italy, because they have done it already.
I could go on, but I shall conclude by saying that there is one area that worries me enormously. The Minister mentioned it in his opening remarks. We bring certain children over here, thinking that they have a relative here. The children go to those people but they are not relatives; they are part of the trafficking gangs. The children then go into prostitution or servitude. We have to deal with that. I ask the Minister to go away and find out how many of the children we have admitted are still safe. Let us find out that figure before we bang on about bringing more children in.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) because although I passionately disagree with his approach to the motion I respect his commitment to tackling trafficking. That echoes what my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said: this is not a partisan issue. Members on both sides of the House feel strongly about this matter. Arthur Helton, a well-known American refugee advocate, once said:
“Refugees embody misery and suffering, and they force us to confront terrible chaos and evil.”
In the time available to me, I will argue that refugees also force us to confront something about ourselves and our nationhood. That is why I disagree with the approach advocated by the hon. Member for Wellingborough. I also want to discuss what the Dubs scheme and what has happened to it says about us as a country.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) is no longer here, because she talked about having had no experience at all of visiting the European refugee camps. I spent quite a bit of time in Calais last summer, but I have not been to Greece or Italy. I do not know where the Minister has visited, but we know that a million refugees have come to Europe in the past two years alone and that 2,500 children are in Greece, 1,000 of whom are sleeping rough. There are widespread reports of the poor quality of the conditions in which those children and their families are living. We also know just how few have been transferred here to the UK despite their family links. The same is true in Italy, where thousands are passing through the camps, and there are widespread reports of children suffering human rights abuses. Yet just three have been reunited with family here.
While the motion refers to Greece, Italy, and France, we should not forget the children who are travelling through Europe, because the Dubs scheme was about children who are in Europe and about our responsibility, as part of Europe and as part of the modern world, to those children alongside our European counterparts. We all know that we will probably get abuse on Twitter or Facebook for taking part in this debate, but we sometimes have to advocate what might seem an unpopular opinion. I am saddened that doing our bit is now an unpopular opinion in this country, but that is the debate that we are having. When our politics might feel so futile, children should not suffer, and I agree with much of what the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) said about that. When we passed the Dubs amendment, that was the best of this House. No matter how unpopular the issue might have seemed on social media, we knew in our hearts and in our heads that it was the right thing to do.
That is why closing the Dubs scheme prematurely is the wrong thing to do. There is no evidence that closing the scheme early will do justice to those children and their needs. There is no evidence for the push or pull factors in this process; there is only supposition. We are not talking about a migrant crisis; we are talking about a refugee crisis—60 million people are fleeing persecution. We should call it a refugee crisis and not pretend that it is the same as people coming here to work. Above all, after the Government voted down proposals in Committee to treat children using the UN convention on the rights of the child, we should ask ourselves why closing the Dubs scheme took our moral purpose forwards, not backwards—it did not.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire talked about other countries and their responsibilities, and I agree with her. We should all be doing more, but because one country is not doing enough does not absolve us of doing our bit. That is the problem. How can we look Turkey in the eye when it is taking 2.8 million Syrian refugees and just 3,000 have come to the UK in the past year alone? The promise of the Dubs scheme is what we should speak up for. Children got on buses to go to centres on a promise and a pledge from the British authorities to treat them fairly, but just two days later the Home Office sneaked out guidance saying that half of them would not even be considered due to their nationality, not their need. Those children are languishing in Dunkirk because they have lost all hope. That is not British. That is not a popular opinion that we should uphold.
I will join other Members in tabling amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill to try to reopen the Dubs scheme, to try to hold the Government to account for what we promised a year ago that we would do, and not to let the Minister get away with claiming that it was said in the small print that we should leave these children languishing in the mud and that we would abandon them in Italy and in Greece. We did not listen to the French authorities when they said that the scheme should continue or to the UK’s Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, who confirmed that he knows of cases in which the Dubs amendment has helped and of children who were being exploited but are now safe. We cannot be confident that there are not more of those children, just as we cannot be confident that there are not more local authorities that will step up to the plate. Indeed, when I spoke to my own local authority today, I was proud to hear of the work it is doing to take refugees and its commitment to working with other local authorities.
We have to confront the fact that our nation has to do its bit, alongside other European nations. We can either be followers or leaders in that process. Whatever the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire has to tell herself about this issue so that she can sleep at night, let her tell herself that. Let us not decry these children but stand up for them, because that is the best tradition, that is what will keep them safe and that is what will do justice to this House and this country.
I take the House back to April 2016 when, in response to the national outpouring that followed the dreadful and unforgettable image of poor little Alan Kurdi washed up so limply on a beach, this Government made a commitment in legislation to help some of the thousands of unaccompanied children who had escaped persecution and war and made it to European shores. The Dubs amendment was a complementary but, critically, unique part of our response to the humanitarian crisis that was sweeping across Europe.
As a continent, we must acknowledge that we did not respond swiftly enough to this mass migration, so millions of desperate men, women and children made perilous journeys, which means they are here now. I visited the Greek island of Lesbos in January 2016 with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and wept with disbelief at the hundreds and hundreds of abandoned lifejackets: yours for €20 courtesy of your friendly local trafficker—fake, of course. I remember naively commenting that some of them were branded Kawasaki or Yamaha jet ski water jackets and how at least they were real. “Oh, no,” I was told, “they are still fake. They just sell for a premium because they look more authentic.” What kind of parallel universe had I landed in?
At that time, anywhere between 3,000 and 9,000 refugees a day were arriving on the Greek islands. Greece, already financially on its knees, was in chaos. Yet despite the overwhelming challenge, the Greek people could not have been more hospitable, with local restaurateurs delivering food to the queues of cold but patient refugees. I will never forget the sight of a young mother using her hand to sweep the dirt off the blanket on which her family were sitting. Just a few carrier bags and the blanket were all she had in the world, but it was her home and she was keeping it clean, I remember a woman and her baby. The mother still had a slick of pink lipstick on her lips. She had a dirty face and dirty clothes, but she was proudly still a woman.
Although I saw similar images in Calais in the spring and summer, I am ashamed to say that, because of the euphoria of refugees finally being transferred to safe centres, those images have started to fade. The media have been quick to replace those images with all things Brexit and Trump. When I look back, as the day of camp demolition approached, our Government rose admirably and worked hand in hand with the French authorities to identify and process at speed children with family reunification rights under Dublin and those who might be suitable for the Dubs scheme. Mistakes were made, and it is undeniable that some of the age assessments were wrong, but that was symptomatic of the rush and urgency of the situation. It is not a reason to change our policy on helping lone children.
We took 250 Dublin and 200 Dubs children from France, which was a great start, so why, oh why, are we here today debating the Government’s decision to close the Dubs scheme when only another 150 will come? I am so proud of the £2.3 billion commitment to aid in the region and of the 23,000 refugees we will welcome from there, too, but the glow of pride in those other commitments should not dazzle so brightly that it disguises the separate but very real commitment we made on Dubs. Let us not be blinded.
Dubs was the final jigsaw piece in our refugee response, offering sanctuary to children who had lost everything and were already in Europe. We wisely set a cut-off date so that the offer would extend only to those who had come before the Turkey-EU deal in March, and we all agreed that was critical to ensuring that there was not a swell of new arrivals. Crude though it was, the Turkey deal worked and the flow to the Greek islands reduced significantly, but Greece could not and still cannot cope with the level of people who had already arrived. Dubs recognised that, enshrining in law a promise to help ease the burden on Greece and offer sanctuary to children who are vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution. These children are no less vulnerable now, so why are we turning our backs on them?
Ministers will say they are worried about the pull factor. First, let me say that we had this debate when we debated Dubs last year, and we accepted the evidence and expertise of NGOs that this legislation would not exacerbate a “pull”. Secondly, and so clearly, the very opposite happens. Having finally encouraged children to trust volunteers and the authorities, and coaxed them on the coaches to go to the centres in Calais, we now propose to whip the system away from them. When people cannot trust western Governments, whose welcoming arms they have sought, is it any surprise that the smiling face of the trafficker is the only place left to turn? I believe that opening the Dubs scheme and then shutting it so rapidly will actually cause more harm and a greater “pull”, through southern Europe towards Calais and then to our shores. In Dunkirk, on Monday, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I heard at first hand from youngsters who had absconded from the safety of those regional centres because they had heard about the imminent closure of the scheme. Desperation clouds judgment and makes for poor choices—choices that lead straight into the hands of traffickers and prostitution rings. Closing Dubs so abruptly will give the traffickers the greatest promotional opportunity they could ever ask for.
We have never invested fully in a structured approach to Dublin processing in Europe, with scant Home office personnel available in those French centres and only one person in Greece and another in Italy. Refugees showed us their paperwork on Monday; nothing at all in writing from the Home Office is given to them and basic asylum rights information is provided in French, despite the very first item on the documentation saying that the person cannot speak French. We can and must do better.
Putting Dubs to one side, Dublin legislation means there is a proactive duty already incumbent on us to assist with family reunification. I am pleased the Government have recently agreed to review the casework of children in France who were turned down at the first attempt, but if we are to do this meaningfully we need an improved process, with dedicated Home Office staff, translators and the commissioning of organisations such as Safe Passage and the Red Cross, which know what they are doing. As we have heard, it has so far taken, on average, 10 months to transfer just nine children from Greece and two from Italy under Dublin, and, I am ashamed to say, none under Dubs.
My visit to Dunkirk on Monday so depressed me, as it was a horrid repetition of everything I had seen in Calais in the summer. I do not want us to feed that vicious cycle, so I feel it is sensible to restrict our activities in France to establishing a high-performing Dublin system. But 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Greece and Italy last year. About 1,000 wait in shelters in Greece, and about the same number again sleep on the streets, with thousands more doing the same in Italy. So it is in Greece and Italy where we should focus our Dubs attention.
As I draw my comments to a close, I want to focus on the capacity of local authorities, as that is the main basis for the Government’s argument. The Government say they have consulted and local authorities can take only 150 more. Even as I was writing this speech last night, I received a text message from an old St Albans councillor friend, Anthony Rowlands, who said that his council had just backed a motion to uphold the Dubs amendment. All across the country, councils are stepping forward to say they can do more. Councillor David Simmonds of the Local Government Association told the Home Affairs Committee just yesterday that only 20 councils across the UK have met their 0.07% target. Lewisham Council has offered 23 places but has thus far been sent one only child. Birmingham City Council could take 79 more and Bristol City Council could take 10 more. My own authority in Cambridgeshire has taken 61 but still hopes to reach its full quota of 93. Hammersmith and Fulham Council, after its people visited the Calais camp, upped its offer to the Home Office and asked for an additional 15 children on top of its 0.07% commitment. How fantastic is that? It has 13 spaces filled and has been asking the Home Office for two more children but has experienced “resistance” from Home Office officials. This evidence, I am sorry to say, suggests that a lack of capacity has not been proven and, as we know, this will be challenged in the courts. Evidence I have taken from the LGA says that all councils were written to once, regardless of whether they are district, unitary or county councils, but there has been no follow-up after that one letter.
Our world is in turmoil and moral leadership is needed like never before. What kind of country are we? What kind of Government are we? The country that I know and love is outward-looking, proud, welcoming and, above all, sharing. We have talked a lot recently about being a friend to Europe post-Brexit, but I tell you what, Mr Speaker, actions speak louder than words. We must step up and be the partner that our European neighbours need. We must go back to our local authorities and ask again—and again.
The humanitarian crisis will not end neatly at the end of this financial year, so neither must our compassion. In the event that we are unsuccessful today, I have already tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill, which will return to the House soon. There is substantial cross-party support for this debate. So long as Europe is under pressure to find homes for the most vulnerable casualties of war and persecution, we must keep asking, what more can we do?
I am keen to speak from an Ulster Unionist point of view, but first I congratulate the Members who have brought this matter to the House. I very much agree with the points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen).
I shall keep my speech short. When I came here as a new boy, I was keen to learn how much the Government were doing for refugees. I was pleased to see that they had provided £2.3 billion, and I was pleased to support the vulnerable person resettlement programme and to know that 4,500 people were coming to the UK, with 300 coming to Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist party is clear that we in Northern Ireland must do our bit and be more included. We are currently in the middle of an election, but we need to be involved to ensure that we are sharing in it.
Having listened to the reasons why we need not support certain measures because of the Dubs amendment, I was disappointed to find that the commitment had been dropped. Bearing in mind our British values of helping people and looking after them, the decision should have come back to the House for a debate—we have touched on it a bit today—so that we could all learn more about trafficking and about how we can help people.
In my brief time here, I have only seen the camps in Kurdistan in northern Iraq. I was impressed by how they are run but appalled by the fact that it is going to be years before the people there can get back to their homes. Although there were tents for families of six, most families had eight or 12 members. They were incredibly well looked after, but they showed us that as a country we have to be compassionate.
By dropping the Dubs commitment we have not done what we promised. We have heard many Members saying that we must do more. We need to keep reviewing the situation. We have to have compassion and to help people, and we have to keep working at it. Let us do what we should do as British people and help to look after everyone else.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I congratulate those Members who secured it.
At the heart of this debate is the important question of whether we have done enough for child refugees. Have we shown our compassion? The answer now, and always, is no, not yet. It is not a case of our saying, “We are just going to do this much to comply with our interpretation of the law and see whether it is enough,” and then moving on; we should want to do the maximum for the most vulnerable refugees who need our support. We can do that in all manner of ways, not only through compliance with section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 or the Dublin agreement, but through our international aid obligations and the resettlement routes, and, indeed, by caring for those who come to our shores irregularly. We can show our compassion in all manner of ways.
The Home Secretary was right when she said in her party conference speech in October—this did not get as much publicity as some of her other comments—that compassion has no borders. That is something we will hold on to. As has been said, compassion is not the preserve of any one political party, and it is not the preserve of Back Benchers or Ministers. I understand that there is a difficult job to do, with much complexity. We all care about these vulnerable people, so the issue is how we can deliver something practically.
As everyone has said, the Government have a good record, having committed £2.3 billion to international aid and cared for the 8,000 unaccompanied children who came through last year, many of whom came through the Syrian VPR scheme.
I particularly commend the Government for focusing not on the numbers, but on the issues of safety and vulnerability, whether in the UK or by making the value of our pound go far in Syria, the middle east, north Africa or, indeed, in Europe.
Over time, through cross-party pressure, the Government have moved from a 200 VPR scheme to a 20,000 VPR scheme, despite some pressure and push-back from some people. We are not simply going to pick a number; we will look at how far we can go now and we will keep the door open to looking at how we can respond to issues of vulnerability and safety. That is why I welcome the Government’s continuing approach.
We are on a journey. We do not know what is going to happen next or what the next crisis or challenge will be. We have an international leadership role, particularly on modern slavery, that I want to touch on briefly. It means that we must keep the door open to a response to the refugee crisis.
I welcomed the Government’s response last April and May to the call that came from the public and elsewhere to take in 3,000 child refugees. What was our response to that number? The charities recognised that it was somewhat arbitrary, but it rightly mobilised us—we wanted the Government to do more. The Government’s response was, “Yes, we will take 3,000 more vulnerable children, and we will take them from the middle east and north Africa.” That is the largest international resettlement effort that focuses on children, those at risk and their carers. I commend the Government for it.
The Government went further. They responded to the wonderful and very credible campaign led by Lord Dubs, which eventually led to section 67 of the Immigration Act. Their response was commendable because it was very practical; it recognised that focusing on numbers is not the best way to approach things when it comes to those in Europe, although it can be a good approach for refugee camps, particularly in the middle east and north Africa. The situation in Europe is complicated, and we have to work practically on it in partnership with our French, Italian and Greek neighbours and with local authorities.
I supported the revised Dubs amendment, because it took a practical approach—compassion with a head and a heart. The Government announcement of the scheme on 4 May, under the previous Prime Minister, stated:
“Those at risk of trafficking or exploitation will be prioritised for resettlement. And existing family reunion routes will be accelerated…The government is not putting a fixed number on arrivals, but will instead work with local authorities across the UK to determine how many children will be resettled.”
I understood that as a very practical way of moving things forward. I did not expect the number to be 350; I do not believe that that was in any Member’s mind—whether we are using our heart or our head, our moral and legal responsibilities to fulfil section 67 go way beyond that. Nevertheless, it was a practical approach, which is why in a letter to MPs the Home Secretary rightly stated:
“The scheme has not closed, as reported by some. We were obliged by the Immigration Act to put a specific number on how many children we would take based on a consultation with local authorities about their capacity. This is the number that we have published and we will now be working in Greece, Italy and France to transfer further children under the amendment. We’re clear that behind these numbers are children and it’s vital that we get the balance right between enabling eligible children to come to the UK as quickly as possible and ensuring local authorities have capacity to host them and provide them with the support and care they will need.”
The Government can make any interpretation they want, but the reality is that the scheme is in law. It is a matter of statute, and there has been no revision, no sunset clause and no Bill that means that it no longer applies. The Dubs amendment still stands. What we might call the Cameron scheme had a cut-off date of 20 March 2016, although the Government are quite at liberty to change that, but our responsibility to work with local authorities to come up with the right scheme is a matter of statute.
I recognise that the Government scheme is still open, although I suggest we need to reset its time lock. It needs to be opened wider—the statutory 0.07% commitment to offer places across local authorities may need to be made wider. As we learned in the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, that would lead to 4,000 more spaces. I encourage the Government to go back and show that that door can be pushed wider open. I also urge them to publish more comprehensive criteria on all forms of modern slavery, as the anti-slavery commissioner has said.
Mr Hyland has said that 3,000 unaccompanied Nigerian children arrived in Italy by sea last year. There is nothing about push and pull; most have already been victims of trafficking. What is their destination through the traffickers? It is the UK. The Prime Minister is taking a lead on modern slavery. She dispatched Kevin Hyland to find this out, and he has come back saying that we have a responsibility to these women and children. I want the Government to take those responsibilities seriously, keeping the Dubs amendment wide open, resetting it in Italy, where the Turkey deal has no relevance, and ensuring that we can keep on the path of safety for these child refugees.
It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate. Our vote last year on the Dubs amendment was one of my biggest tests in Parliament since my election. On the morning of the vote, I drafted and published my position on why I was going to support the Government, yet after sitting through the whole debate and hearing the arguments put forward by Members on both sides of the House, I changed my mind and ended up voting for the amendment, much to the frustration of the Government Whips. Such is the power of this place.
Although the Government won the vote that evening, history tells us that they changed their position shortly afterwards and accepted an amended version of that Dubs amendment. If we fast forward to the past fortnight, there has been the announcement that we will take only 150 more children under the amendment. I must say how sad and disappointed I was to hear that.
The Government have a proud record when it comes to their response to the events in Syria and the wider region. We have pledged more than £2.3 billion in aid—the UK’s largest ever humanitarian response to a single crisis, and second only to that of the United States of America. Thanks to the goodwill of the British people and local authorities up and down the country, in the last year alone we have provided refuge or other forms of leave to more than 8,000 children. However, that does not mean that we can ignore the crisis currently happening in Italy and Greece, and across Europe. We cannot say, “Job done,” pull up the drawbridge on Dubs and leave vulnerable children at risk on the continent.
Two main arguments have been put forward by those who are keen for the UK to do less to help. The first is that local authorities do not have the capacity for more children. Even if that is the case, it is no reason not to reconsult them regularly and then allow them to take in children when they can. As I understand it, the last consultation took place in June 2016. The Dubs amendment did not specify numbers, but it did mandate the Government to consult local authorities about their capacity to support unaccompanied child refugees. Yet across the UK, there are 217 upper-tier and unitary local authorities with responsibility for children’s services, so 400 Dubs children do not even equate to two unaccompanied children per council. I challenge anyone making that first argument about whether it reflects actual capacity.
The second argument is that schemes such as Dubs act as a pull factor for children who are intent on getting to the UK.
The anti-slavery commissioner published a statement on that issue this afternoon. He said that he felt that the effect of the Dubs amendment had been exactly the opposite of a pull factor, as it had meant that fewer people were pulled to the UK by the traffickers.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. I agree—I will come to that exact point now.
Focusing on a pull factor ignores the power of push factors. These children are not economic migrants. They are not seeking to come to the UK in the hope of making more money. They are refugees fleeing conflict, persecution, poverty, fear and desperation. They are putting themselves in grave danger because there is a small chance that a safer life exists across the Mediterranean.
The pull factor was mentioned many times in last year’s debate on the Dubs amendment, but the newest incarnation of the argument—that children move within Europe in the hope of being brought to Britain—simply does not stand up to scrutiny. When the Government introduced the scheme, they introduced a cut-off date of 20 March, meaning that it only applied to children already in Europe, so how could it possibly serve as an incentive or a pull factor? Remarkable work has been done by the Department for International Development in countries surrounding Syria and war zones around the world, and that has played an important role in discouraging people from travelling to Europe.
Finally, and most importantly, safe and legal routes to the United Kingdom encourage children to engage with local authorities, rather than throwing in their lot with people traffickers in the hope of being smuggled into the United Kingdom. I am told by NGOs and charities—I expect this is the point that the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was making —that anecdotal evidence suggests that when children were transferred from the Calais jungle to the United Kingdom, spontaneous arrivals by illegal means almost completely stopped. That was simply because children were putting their trust in the system. Surely it is better that scared and vulnerable children, with a shocking lack of information about their rights, are encouraged to engage with the formal system in the hope of safe transfer, rather than risking their lives. I am concerned that if we reduce those formal paths to asylum in the United Kingdom, we will be playing into the hands of people smugglers.
I have talked to charities that have worked with children in the camps of northern France, and there are countless stories of children who, after hearing that they will not be relocated to the UK through Dubs or the Dublin convention, have returned from safe children’s centres to the squalor of camps such as Grande-Synthe outside Dunkirk in order to find illicit routes into Britain. Safe relocation schemes such as Dubs and the Dublin convention mean that the Home Office can assess whether it is in the best interest of a child to be brought here, ensure that the most vulnerable or those with family in the UK are taken to safety, and encourage others to claim asylum in France.
The Dubs amendment’s passage into legislation marked an acknowledgement that we have a duty to do better than this. We can do better than this. I urge the Government to reconsider, to keep the scheme open and to continue to consult with local authorities. We cannot let it end here.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, which I commend the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing.
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Turkey to visit a refugee camp very close to the Syrian border. What struck me was not just the size of the camp, but the fact that this felt like the start of something much longer and more protracted. I still recall my talks and chats with families; all they wanted to do was get back to their home in Syria. Last year—three years later —I went to Jordan and Lebanon as a member of the Select Committee on International Development with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham). I went to al-Azraq to visit refugees and some of the host communities. Again, I was struck by the size of the camps, the vulnerability of the people, the sheer amount of work that went into supporting them—rightly so—and the huge amount of effort put into that by the host communities, host countries and international donors.
I want to touch, in broad terms, on the UK’s response to the Syrian crisis and to the migration crisis. Given the scale of the challenge, we and the British people should be proud of that response. To date, DFID has allocated £2.3 billion in response to the Syrian crisis. The UK is the second-largest bilateral donor to the humanitarian response in Syria since it began in 2012, and it is one of the few EU countries to commit to 0.7% foreign aid spending. DFID figures show that UK aid in Syria and the region between February 2012 and August 2016 has included providing more than 21 million individual monthly rations, in excess of 6.5 million relief packages, more than 6 million vaccines, and health support, grants and vouchers.
That is not it. Between October 2015 and December 2016, the UK gave support to refugees and migrants during the Mediterranean crisis, many of whom were not from Syria but from other countries. The support included meals to refugees and migrants in migrant camps in Greece and Serbia, and relief items such as blankets, temporary beds and hygiene kits for refugees and migrants moving across Europe, as well as healthcare, emergency first aid, protection interventions, and legal support and assistance. I am proud of the work that DFID staff do, often in difficult situations, and of the NGO community.
It is vital that we take a balanced approach, targeting support to help the most vulnerable while working closely with local authorities which, after all, are the ones that resettle these vulnerable individuals and provide them with a home and, crucially, support. We often hear of the pressures that local authorities are under. I looked up figures on foster families and found that the Government do a lot of work to encourage families to come forward and foster children, but we still need to do more—we already face that challenge.
The Government agreed to resettle 20,000 Syrians in this Parliament and to settle 3,000 children and their families from the wider region. We have also granted asylum or another form of leave to more than 8,000 children. Our resettlement programme is the biggest in Europe. The Government have also transferred more than 900 children from Europe, including more than 750 from France. This is crucial work that the Government are dedicated to continuing, through Dublin and Dubs, and under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme and the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme.
It is also vital, however, that we do not create a strong incentive for refugees to undertake that dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and put themselves in the hands of people traffickers. I know that we do not all share the same opinion about this, but I have seen the figures for 2015, which saw probably the biggest movement of people since the second world war, and although I do not have the stats for 2016, I am sure that the challenge of fragile states and conflict-affected countries and regions remains. I have seen many examples of that in my work on the International Development Committee and during some of the visits we have been fortunate to undertake.
We also heard this week about the prospect of serious famine across Africa, in addition to the high youth unemployment in some countries. These are all extra factors that I believe are driving migration—it is not something that has just happened; it has been happening for some time. I do not blame any young person for taking the initiative and wanting to make a better life for themselves, but it is important that when they do it, they do so for the right reasons and safe passage is available for those entitled to it.
All this highlights some of the challenges we face in the modern world. As well as seeking short-term solutions through humanitarian aid and the schemes that the Home Office is undertaking now, we must use all other means at our disposal to tackle these problems at source. That means using the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our diplomacy skills and influence across the world, and it means using DFID and the aid budget not just to provide humanitarian aid to those who need it most, but to tackle things such as economic development and developing livelihoods. Only in that way, working to reduce conflict and instability, will we ever get to the bottom of some of the deep-rooted challenges we face today.
Before I call the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), I remind the House that the debate must finish no later than 6.25 pm—some might think there is merit in it finishing slightly before then—so I appeal to him and the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) to take account of the wish of the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who opened the debate, to have a few minutes to conclude it.
Like other hon. Members, I genuinely welcome, yet again, all the good work that the Government have done, and continue to do, on resettlement and aid. However, the winding down of the Dubs scheme is a deeply misguided decision. It flies so far in the face of the evidence we have heard that it is a scandalous decision. I therefore warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this timely debate and giving us this opportunity to hold the Government to account. We have heard many fine speeches today.
If anyone wants to understand why this is such a deeply misguided and scandalous decision, I urge them to read the transcript of the utterly compelling evidence that the Home Affairs Committee heard yesterday from UNICEF, Safe Passage, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, the Children’s Society, representatives of local government, and Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner. In the words of Tam Baillie, the last of those witnesses, the limit placed on the number of Dubs transfers is
“a shameful step back from an already weak UK response to the plight of migrant children stranded in Europe.”
I distinguish the situation as regards Europe from the help that the Government have provided in the region. SNP Members agree with the Children’s Commissioner. We need not only Dubs reinstated and expanded, but far stronger and faster procedures for Dublin transfers, and better and more generous family reunion and processes. One person in each of Greece and Italy transferring seven or eight people each year is not remotely in the ballpark of what this Parliament expected. All that is reflected in this motion, which we therefore wholeheartedly support. In short, the evidence of the witnesses we heard yesterday was that the Dubs scheme is a modest scheme. It is modest, but it is a very significant and, indeed, unique contribution to dealing with the migration crisis facing Europe, and completely and absolutely the right thing to do.
It is worth reiterating why this is such a precious prize. As we have heard, conditions for too many of the more than 90,000—probably over 100,000—unaccompanied child refugees in Europe are appalling. Of those in Greece—2,300 or so—more than half are living in tents with no heating, exposed to freezing conditions, lack of hot water, inadequate medical care, violence and mistreatment. Dubs, alongside other schemes, can help to stop that happening, ensuring that we are making our fair contribution towards this effort. That is the prize we are pushing for. If we are not going to do this, how can we say that any other country should step up to the plate and take its share of responsibility?
Most impressively, the witnesses yesterday utterly dismantled the two very tenuous reasons given by the Government for phasing this scheme out. First, as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) said, it is wrong of the Home Secretary to argue that the pull factor caused by the Dubs scheme plays into the hands of people traffickers. In fact, the opposite is the case—ending Dubs would be an absolute boon for people traffickers. That was the expert opinion of UNICEF, Safe Passage, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee. As we heard earlier, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has published a report on similar lines. That prompts the question of whether the Government took advice from their own independent expert before reaching this decision, because based on what we understand he has put out this afternoon and the letter referred to by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), he would give the Government absolutely contrary advice to what they have decided to do.
The second argument made by the Government for closing the Dubs scheme is about local government capacity. The witnesses yesterday were absolutely clear that it is not fair for the Immigration Minister to argue that local authorities have the capacity for 400 and that is the end of the story. On the contrary, there can be significantly more capacity. We were reminded that even if we just looked at the Government’s own 0.07% target for the national transfer scheme, that would leave capacity for 4,000 under Dubs. In a sense, however, talking about existing capacity misses the point, because as Tam Baillie, the Children’s Commissioner, pointed out, the question we should be asking is what additional capacity we can create. What investment and time are needed in order to ensure that we are in a position to take our fair share? The right question is not, “How much can we comfortably handle just now?”, but “How much do we need to do—how much do we need to invest—if we are to do our fair share?”
The 3,000 in the original Dubs amendment was not a number plucked out of thin air; it was a careful calculation by Save the Children, using the EU relocation formula, to decide what our fair share of the estimated number of children in Europe at that time would be. Of course, the number of children in Europe is now roughly three times that, so even if we stuck to the original 3,000 it is still a very modest contribution that probably underestimates the number of children we would rightly be expected to take. Instead of dodging our responsibilities, we need more than ever to live up to them.
As we heard earlier, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that Scotland is ready to play its part, and next week she will host another roundtable on how to respond to the situation for unaccompanied children. As we heard yesterday, local government across England and Wales is absolutely prepared to get involved.
Based on yesterday’s Home Affairs Committee sitting and on briefings from other respected organisations, such as Amnesty International and the Red Cross, there is an abundance of expertise, ideas and detailed proposals not only about how we could continue Dubs alongside Dublin, but how we could expand it and make it work better and faster in France, Italy and Greece, Bulgaria and even the Balkans, where such schemes are desperately needed. The Government should be working with non-governmental organisations, local government and other public bodies that are prepared to make that happen.
The Government, as reflected in the motion, have a strong track record on international aid to the countries around Syria. I have always praised that when debating these issues, but it is not some sort of down payment that allows us to wash our hands of responsibility for hosting a share of the refugees. All the work undertaken by the Department for International Development risks being gravely overshadowed in the years ahead by the intransigence of the Home Office.
Hypothetically speaking, if 100,000 children arrived in the United Kingdom and travelled down the Thames, I think the Home Office would take a very different approach. It would not say, “Yes, we will deal with the 100,000 and take some aid from Europe.” It would expect other European countries to step up to the plate. We should take the same approach.
The Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister rightly received credit for their action in respect of Calais —action that their predecessors had dodged for too long, which meant that ultimately the process was unnecessarily messy. That action showed that, with investment, co-operation and political will, significant progress can be achieved and lives can be changed. They should stick to those instincts, revisit the consultation with local authorities, abandon the myths and make policy based on evidence. They should reinstate and expand the Dubs scheme, take out the restrictive nationality and age criteria from the guidance, and improve the Dublin and family reunion processes. Doing so would show respect for this Parliament, command respect from the public, show solidarity with our European neighbours and, most importantly, save children from exploitation and abuse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and others on securing this important debate. We have heard powerful speeches by my hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), the hon. Members for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) and for Dundee West (Chris Law), the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who informed us that she has actually fostered refugee children, which gave what she had to say added significance, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and, finally, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald).
Most Members, on both sides of the House and from all parties, have made it abundantly clear that in effectively closing the Dubs scheme after accepting a mere 350 children, the Government have fallen far short of what Members in both Houses thought they had voted for.
I have sat and listened to the debate and heard powerful presentations from many Members across the House. I think that the debate distils down to two very clear things. First, what do we want to look like to the rest of the world? What example do we want to set? Secondly, what type of country do we want to be? Does my right hon. Friend agree with that?
I agree that this is about asking, particularly post-Brexit, what sort of Britain we are: are we a genuinely outward-looking, internationalist and humanist country, or are we a country that seeks ways to avoid its moral obligations?
I have to begin by acknowledging the investment and exemplary work of Her Majesty’s Government with regard to those refugees who have stayed in camps in the region. I have visited those camps, but this debate is about the Syrian refugee children and others who are in mainland Europe. Some Members and, sadly, the Minister have implied that if we pretend that those tens of thousands of child refugees who are already in Europe somehow do not exist and do not matter, they will disappear.
I must direct the focus of the House to the tens of thousands of refugee children in mainland Europe. I contend that in narrowing the safe and legal routes from Europe for those children, the Government run the risk of acting as a marketing manager for people traffickers. I have visited the camps in France and Greece. These children may be in safe countries, as some Members have said, but they are living in horrible conditions. That is despite the best efforts and the personal kindness of—
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I have to make progress.
It is supposed to be a debate.
I have listened with a lot of care to all the speeches by Members on both sides of the House and now I have to make progress in order to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South.
I have visited the camps in France and Greece. The children there may be in safe countries, but they are living in horrible conditions. That is despite the fact that so many local people do their best to be kind and helpful. Far from arguing, as some Members in this House have done, that providing more safe and legal routes from Europe is some kind of incentive, as if it is a choice, no one who has visited the camps and informal encampments and looked these families and children in the eye can seriously argue that they have come to Europe on some sort of jaunt and can easily be turned back. Remember that these are families and young people who have risked their lives, who have seen people die crossing the Sahara and who have then risked their lives again crossing the Mediterranean.
Of course it is true that the French Government should have done more in the past. It was because the French were so slow originally to register refugees of all ages that so many set their hearts on the UK, but let us be realistic about the conditions facing refugees in Europe. In Greece, the conditions facing asylum seekers were so dire that as long ago as 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled it unlawful to send people back there. Only last year, in December, did the European Commission finally decide that sufficient improvements had been made that other EU member states could start sending people back to Greece.
How far have conditions improved really? I am not so sure that they have. Last month, just weeks after the Commission said it was appropriate to send people to Greece, there were reports that three migrants in an overcrowded camp in Moria on Lesbos had died within 10 days of each other. It is thought that the immediate cause was carbon monoxide poisoning, after men sharing overcrowded tents inhaled toxic fumes from the heaters they had been forced to use in the harsh winter temperatures.
In Italy, where the number of new arrivals reached its highest ever level last year, conditions may have been worse still. Recent measures requiring the Italian authorities to fingerprint new arrivals have led to shocking abuses, according to Amnesty International. It has documented cases of the police using beatings and electric shocks to force compliance from those who are reluctant to have their fingerprints taken. So say that those countries are technically safe, but do not say that the conditions in those countries are acceptable and justify closing off one of the safe, legal routes for children to come from mainland Europe to this country when they have relatives here or other appropriate legal reasons for coming here.
On the question of local government capacity, we have heard that David Simmonds of the Local Government Association says that current Home Office child refugee funding for local councils covers only 15% of the funding costs. That is a serious matter when so many local authorities led by all parties—Labour and Conservative—are under terrible funding pressure. There has been very limited consultation with local authorities. All the evidence suggests that, given more time and appropriate funding, many more councils would step up to provide accommodation for child refugees. An absolute lack of capacity among local authorities simply has not been proven.
Local authorities now receive £41,610 a year for each unaccompanied child under 16. I think that is slightly more than 15% of the costs.
I can only listen to the LGA, which said that the money covers only 50% of funding costs. The Minister must have that debate with local government.
It is all too easy to say that closing off routes, whether the Dubs scheme or Dublin, for refugee children in Europe is acting in their best interests—that somehow they will go back, and that the fact that we are doing good work in the region offsets the fact that children are being left in squalor at the mercy of people traffickers on the continent of Europe. It is all too easy, but it is not right. The hallmark of a civilised country is the fairness, the justice and the humanity with which it treats the most vulnerable. Who could be more vulnerable than refugee children?
I join many Members on both sides of the House who plead with the Government, even at this late stage, to fulfil the hopes and expectations of Members in this House and the other place when they voted for the Dubs amendment. We plead with the Government to fulfil not only their legal but their moral obligations, and to act to save the tens of thousands of refugee children still on the continent of Europe from the squalor, the people traffickers and the exploitation, and, perhaps above all, to save this country’s good name and reputation.
I began the debate by explaining that it was cross party because the fate of refugees is a cause that belongs to no one political party, no one ideology and no one faction. I remain of that opinion after listening to Members’ contributions.
Notwithstanding that, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who has shown great courage in recent weeks, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) made me deeply proud to be a Labour person, as I always will be. However, in listening to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), and the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), I felt proud of my country.
The Minister, however, decided to speak at the beginning of the debate. When I understood that he wished to do that, I hoped that he would set the tone by making a new announcement or giving us some new information that might make us reconsider the concern that some of us felt. Unfortunately, the opposite was the case. I remain with unanswered questions. We suspect that we do not have enough staff in Greece to process applications properly, and the Minister said that he will write to me on that point, for which I am grateful. We still do not really have a true picture of local authority capacity to accept new child refugees under the Dubs amendment, although Members of all parties gave examples of their council leaders, who have said clearly and unequivocally that they can do more. The Minister must therefore make a proper formal assessment and either write to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, or place the information in the House or provide it in some other public way.
Most importantly, the Minister should commit to a proper reopening of the Dubs scheme. Given that we have clear evidence that there is widespread support for the scheme and that local authorities can and will accept more children, there is no reason for the limit of 350. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what was said to whom, where and when, as many Members have said, nobody went into the debate believing that that was the number that we would accept. The Minister must commit to a proper reopening of Dubs.
I have no wish to detain the House any longer, but I want to conclude by saying that there are very clear practical reasons why turning away from refugees is a bad idea. Whether it is the impact of the message on people in poor countries who are more likely to turn to the siren voices of extremists and terrorists if we do not stand up for the values we say we believe in, or it is the wider consequences of poverty that lead to conflict in the first place, from a practical perspective, turning away refugees is just not in our national interest.
Having met refugees myself, I remain of the view that if the average British person who probably thinks about these issues for no more than a couple of minutes every month or so met a refugee and saw what those of us in this House have seen, they would feel absolutely clear that they wanted to help. None of them would turn away. Yet just now our world is caught up in the oldest of stories: when times are hard extreme politicians turn up and tell ordinary working people to blame foreigners rather than to see the truth that people who become refugees are just like us.
The way forward for the Government is clear: reopen Dubs, get more staff to Greece and get children to safety. Until they do so, I and my colleagues from all parties will be back here time and again.
The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 1 March (Standing Order No. 41A).