My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last week’s European Council, which focused on the migration crisis affecting continental Europe. The single biggest cause has of course been the war in Syria and the brutality of the Assad regime. But we have also seen huge growth in the number of people coming to southern Europe from Afghanistan, Pakistan and north Africa, all facilitated by the rapid growth of criminal networks of people-smugglers. More than 8,000 migrants are still arriving in Greece every week and there are signs that the numbers using the central Mediterranean route are on the rise again. So far 10,000 have come this year.
Of course, because of our special status in the European Union, Britain is not part of the Schengen open border arrangements—and we are not going to be joining. We have our own border controls and they apply to everyone trying to enter our country, including EU citizens. So people cannot travel through Greece or Italy onward to continental Europe and into Britain and that will not change. But it is in our national interest to help our European partners to deal effectively with this enormous and destabilising challenge.
We have argued for a consistent and clear approach right from the start: ending the conflict in Syria; supporting the refugees in the region; securing European borders; taking refugees directly from the camps and neighbouring countries but not from Europe; and cracking down on people-smuggling gangs. This approach of focusing on the problem upstream has now been universally accepted in Europe, and at this Council it was taken forward with a comprehensive plan for the first time.
As part of this plan, the Council agreed to stop migrants leaving Turkey in the first place; to intercept those who do leave while they are at sea, turning back their boats; and to return to Turkey those who make it to Greece. There can be no guarantees of success but, if this plan is properly and fully implemented, in my view it will be the best chance to make a difference. For the first time we have a plan that breaks the business model of the people-smugglers by breaking the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe.
I want to be clear about what Britain is doing—and what we are not doing—as a result of this plan. What we are doing is contributing our expertise and our skilled officials to help with the large-scale operation now under way. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship “Mounts Bay” and Border Force vessels are already patrolling the Aegean. British asylum experts and interpreters are already working in Greece to help to process individual cases. At the Council I said that Britain stands ready to do even more to support these efforts. Above all, what is needed—and what we have been pushing for—is a detailed plan to implement this agreement and to ensure that all the offers of support that are coming from around Europe are properly co-ordinated. Our share of the additional money, which will go to helping refugees in Turkey under this agreement, will come from our existing aid budget.
But let me also be clear what we are not doing. First, we are not giving visa-free access to Turks coming to the UK. Schengen countries are planning to give visa-free access to Turks but, because we are not part of Schengen, we are not bound by their decision. We have made our own decision, which is to maintain our own borders, and we will not be giving that visa-free access.
Secondly, visa-free access to Schengen countries will not mean a backdoor route to Britain. As the House knows, visa-free access means only the right to visit. It does not mean a right to work. It does not mean a right to settle. Just because, for instance, British citizens can enjoy visa-free travel for holidays in America, that does not mean that they can work, let alone settle, there. Nor will this give Turkish citizens those rights in the EU.
Thirdly, we will not be taking more refugees as a result of this deal. A number of Syrians who are in camps in Turkey will be resettled into the Schengen countries of the EU but, again, that does not apply to Britain. We have already got our resettlement programme and we are delivering on that. We said that we would resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over this Parliament, taking them directly from the camps, and that is what we are doing. We promised that 1,000 would be resettled here in time for last Christmas and that is what we delivered.
The other 27 EU countries agreed to two schemes. One was to relocate 160,000 within the EU, but by the time of last December’s Council, only 208 people had been relocated. The second was to have a voluntary resettlement scheme for 22,500 from outside the EU, but by the end of last year just 483 refugees had been resettled throughout the 27 countries.
We said what we would do and we are doing it. Britain has given more money to support Syrians fleeing the war, and the countries hosting them, than any other European country. Indeed, we are doing more than any country in the world other than the United States, spending more than £1 billion so far, with another £1.3 billion pledged. We are fulfilling our moral responsibility as a nation.
Turning to the central Mediterranean, the EU naval operation that we established last summer has had some success, with more than 90 vessels destroyed and more than 50 smugglers arrested. HMS “Enterprise” is taking part and we will continue her deployment throughout the summer.
What is desperately needed is a Government in Libya with whom we can work, so that we can co-operate with the Libyan coastguard, in Libyan waters, to turn back the boats and stop the smugglers there, too. There is now a new Prime Minister and a Government whom we have recognised as the sole legitimate authority in Libya. These are very early days, but we must do what we can to try to make this work. That is why at this Council I brought together leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Malta to ensure that we are all ready to provide as much support as possible.
Turning to other matters at the Council, I took the opportunity to deal with a long-standing issue that we have had about the VAT rate on sanitary products. We have some EU-wide VAT rules in order to make the single market work, but the system has been far too inflexible and this causes understandable frustration. We said that we would get this changed and that is exactly what we have done. The Council conclusions confirm that the European Commission will produce a proposal in the next few days to allow countries to extend the number of zero rates for VAT, including on sanitary products. This is an important breakthrough. It means that Britain will be able to have a zero rate for sanitary products, meaning the end of the tampon tax. On this basis, the Government will be accepting both the amendments put down to the Finance Bill tomorrow night.
My right honourable friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green spent almost a decade campaigning for welfare reform and improving people’s life chances and he has spent the last six years implementing those policies in government. In that time, we have seen nearly half a million fewer children living in workless households, more than a million fewer people on out-of-work benefits and nearly 2.4 million more people in work. In spite of having to take difficult decisions on the deficit, child poverty, inequality and pensioner poverty are all down. My right honourable friend contributed an enormous amount to the work of this Government and he can be proud of what he achieved.
This Government will continue to give the highest priority to improving the life chances of the poorest in our country. We will continue to reform our schools. We will continue to fund childcare and create jobs. We will carry on cutting taxes for the lowest paid. In the last Parliament, we took 4 million of the lowest-paid people out of income tax altogether and our further rises to the personal allowance will take many more out, too. Combined with this, we will go on with our plans to rebuild sink estates, to help those with mental health conditions, to extend our troubled families programme, to reform our prisons and to tackle discrimination for those whose life chances suffer because of the colour of their skin. In two weeks’ time, we will introduce the first ever national living wage, giving a pay rise to the poorest people in our country. All of this is driven by a deeply held conviction that everyone in Britain should have the chance to make the most of their lives.
Let me add this. None of this would be possible if it was not for the actions of this Government and the work of my right honourable friend the Chancellor in turning our economy around. We can only improve life chances if our economy is secure and strong. Without sound public finances, you end up having to raise taxes or make even deeper cuts in spending. You do not get more opportunity that way; you get less opportunity that way. When that happens, it is working people who suffer, as we saw in Labour’s recession. So we must continue to cut the deficit, control the cost of welfare and live within our means. We must not burden our children and grandchildren with debts that we did not have the courage to pay off ourselves. Securing our economy and extending opportunity, we will continue with this approach in full, because we are a modern, compassionate, one-nation Conservative Government. I commend the Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister earlier today. I have to say that it was not quite the Statement that we were expecting after the media noise over the last day or so. She may have noticed when she was speaking that noble Lords were flicking through the Statement that was released, because the last part that she read out was not released to the Opposition or to your Lordships’ House in the usual way. I do not imply any discourtesy, but I suspect that the crescendo that we heard in defence of compassionate Conservativism at the end probably had not been written in time for the printed copy.
As MPs and Peers left Westminster on Thursday evening, no one could have foreseen the events of the weekend. Clearly, problems were simmering at the heart of the Government, which led to the dramatic resignation of the Work and Pensions Secretary on Friday evening, just as many of us were about to turn in for the night. In the Statement, the Prime Minister paid fulsome tribute to Iain Duncan Smith for his work in government. But for those who read his resignation letter and watched him on TV yesterday, it is clear that his concerns and the reasons for his resignation are deeply held. Although some feel that this had been building up for some time, others such as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, took to the airwaves to condemn it as a more recent conversion. We may never know the truth.
I genuinely welcome the fact that, despite these distractions, the Prime Minister was able to focus on what was an extremely important EU Council, on which I want to focus. Europe is facing the most severe migration crisis since the Second World War. Many have observed that this is the biggest challenge that the EU has ever faced. Given the scale and the seriousness of the crisis, and the importance of the EU Council meeting, I find it disappointing that internal government political problems dominated the weekend’s news coverage.
Before we get into the detail, we should just reflect on how the human misery at the heart of the crisis is too often lost in the language of EU agreements and treaties. This is nothing less than a matter of life or death for the people involved. You just have to imagine being a parent and paying your life’s savings to someone you know full well to be a criminal just to try to possibly escape the horror that has convulsed your country, with no real prospect of peace in sight. We have seen this in Syria, Afghanistan and north Africa. Many of these families know that they face a great risk, but they believe that staying is a greater risk for them. We just have to imagine and think how absolutely desperate they must be. They have not packed suitcases to go off on holiday, nor have they have been able to sit down and make a rational choice to leave their homes. They feel that there is no alternative but to seek refuge and a better, safer life for them and their children elsewhere.
In 2015, more than 1 million people made that dangerous journey to Europe in a desperate search for safety. Upon arrival, if indeed they make it that far, despite the best efforts of charities, the authorities and volunteers, they all too often face appalling conditions. There is no proper access to all those things that we take for granted: homes, food, sanitation, healthcare and schools. They do not have them in the way that we expect to have them. This is a humanitarian crisis on the most enormous scale. Talk of migrants—especially “bunches of migrants”, a phrase that we have heard—merely dehumanises each and every individual tragedy that we are faced with. Perhaps we should all try to remember that and think about how we speak.
It is right that our response to a crisis of this magnitude is an EU-wide response. It is also right that, through the EU, we engage with Turkey. The need for Europe-wide co-operation underlines the case for remaining in the EU. Labour supports Turkey’s application to join the EU, but we also recognise that this is certainly not an immediate prospect: important issues have to be addressed first and conditions met. We want to be satisfied with regard to human rights, governance, free media, the rule of law and Turkey’s relationship with Cyprus. However, the agreement reached over the weekend, if implemented properly and fully, could relieve some of the pressure that both Turkey and Greece are facing. I welcome the clarification on Turkish visas and Schengen. We also pay tribute to those from our Armed Forces and military engaged in the EU naval operations for their vital work on this issue.
However, questions remain both on refugees and on the wider issues, which I hope the noble Baroness can address in her response. For those seeking refuge who are to be returned, what measures will be taken to ensure that they do not again fall into the hands of traffickers and that they are protected by international law? What measures are guaranteed for those claiming asylum in terms of access to interpreters and to legal advice and representation? Is the noble Baroness able to confirm whether Turkish travel documents have a sufficient level of integrity and security in line with EU standards, including on fingerprints? In repeating the Statement today, she gave some figures on the number of refugees who have settled in the UK. If she could update those figures, that would be helpful.
What progress has been made with ensuring that Turkey fully respects the Geneva Convention on human rights, to ensure that all those arriving from other countries receive formal international protection? What steps are being taken to ensure that those arriving in Turkey do not simply shift via other routes—for example, through Libya? What support is being given to Greece to enable it to execute the terms of the deal at such notice?
Finally, on the other issue that the Prime Minister mentioned, the tampon tax, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Primarolo, who is in her place. She tells the story of how, as a Treasury Minister, she sought and, in 2000, succeeded in reducing VAT on female sanitary protection to the then lowest level of 5% from the higher level that we as a Government inherited of 17.5%. It was not easy. She was told the justification for why it could not be reduced to the lower level of 5% in a scene worthy of “Yes Minister”. She was told: “But Minister, it is only for essential products”. When she asked for examples of what those could possibly be, she was told, “Well, Minister, essential products like razor blades”.
Today, we welcome the progress made and recognise the efforts of my noble friend in getting us to this point. The right decision has been made. The Chancellor said last week in his Statement that the money raised from that 5% VAT would go to charities. Does that mean that charities will not receive that income, or will the Chancellor find some other way to make up the deficit of the money that they were expecting? I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to answer my questions.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. Given that much of it was about Turkey, I am sure that she and the House as a whole wish to place on record our condolences to the families of those who have been the victims of recent terrorism atrocities in both Ankara and Istanbul.
Faced with such an immense challenge, it would be unreasonable to doubt the good faith of those who have strived to reach some agreement between the European Union and Turkey over the past few days, but it should not come as a surprise when I say that we on these Benches have serious misgivings about the EU-Turkey deal which has emerged from the European Council meeting. The United Kingdom should be leading by example in the response to the refugee crisis. We should be using a significant influence to fight for an EU-wide response that is fair, just and respect the values that this country holds dear. Credit where credit is due: where this Government have played a leading role, such as in encouraging humanitarian relief in Syria and the region, we have been successful, not least at the Syria donor conference in London last month.
However, when we look at the agreement and the Statement from the Prime Minister, we find it shameful that the United Kingdom is demonstrating such reluctance to stand up for vulnerable refugees who have fled from war and terror. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, gave very clear substance to what those people are facing. Our continued inaction does not do justice to Britain’s history and values.
When one reads the Prime Minister’s Statement, one finds that we will not be taking more refugees as a result of this deal. Put that in a context where people are facing misery and need. One wonders whether this is really a manifestation of compassionate conservatism.
Safe and legal routes are crucial for moving the current process forward. The vast majority of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq choose to stay in the region, as close to their homes as possible, but for those who cannot survive in the region, routes must be available to apply for asylum not only in the United Kingdom but in other countries as well. On these Benches, we support the measures set out by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees on 4 March: humanitarian admission programmes, private sponsorships, family reunions, student scholarships and labour mobility schemes. Direct resettlement from the region is part of that, and we should be scaling up our resettlement programme. Twenty thousand people over five years is insufficient. The United Kingdom should use its leadership in Europe to encourage other European countries to scale up their own programmes of direct resettlement.
We also need a system in place for those already in Europe, including the estimated 26,000 children who arrived in 2015, 10,000 of whom are now missing. In the vote in the earlier Division, the House made its view very clear on that.
On previous occasions the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and other Ministers have tried to argue that, by accepting those seeking asylum who have travelled the fraught journey to continental Europe, we are only encouraging more people to do so. I have always thought that it was a bit like saying that the Good Samaritan should really have passed by on the other side because, by stopping to help, he was only encouraging more acts of highway robbery on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. If, as the Statement hopes, the agreement breaks the business model of the people smugglers, what reason is there then for us not taking an equitable share of those who are already in continental Europe?
Clearly, the Dublin system is not currently sufficient to deal with this crisis. Instead, the United Kingdom should encourage the European Union to develop European-wide systems of responsibility for asylum seekers, including setting up a system for asylum requests to be distributed equitably across EU member states which takes account of different demographic projections, such as the high net migration in the United Kingdom, compared to forecast population decreases elsewhere.
Turning to the specifics, many people and well-recognised organisations have expressed concern that the proposals as they stand seek to address only the short-term concerns over European borders. Serious questions were raised after the 7 March proposals were published as to their standing in European Union and international law. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House give the House the Government’s assessment of the international legal position in relation to this agreement? Can she give details of how full and proper asylum determination procedure will be carried out in Greece in full compliance with European Union law? The agreement states:
“People who do not have a right to international protection will be immediately returned to Turkey”.
Can the noble Baroness provide more detail on who that covers? What provision is made for families and children, given that children and women now make up 60% of those crossing to Europe? Will those who have the right to international protection be granted asylum only in Greece, or will they be relocated elsewhere?
The one-for-one arrangement appears to apply only to Syrian refugees. What is the position regarding other nationalities, such as Iraqis and Afghans, who are also fleeing conflict areas? Not surprisingly, Greece is having great difficulty processing the number of people through the relocation provisions, so can the noble Baroness give us some detail as to how quickly people will be assessed and indicate what provision the United Kingdom is making for the assessment process?
There appears to be little in the way of concrete proposals to tackle trafficking within Turkey and other launch points, including Libya. Although we would like a full investigation into the cash flows of the smuggling businesses, in the mean time, can the noble Baroness assure the House that the money provided by the European Union to improve humanitarian conditions for refugees in Turkey will be closely monitored and, where possible, be funded through international organisations, including UNHCR, UNICEF and other NGOs?
Finally, the EU-Turkey statement reaffirms a commitment to re-energise the accession process. We have supported Turkey’s application, but I do not think that anyone can be under any illusion that, however important it is, it will be a difficult and probably long process. Can the Leader of the House assure us and confirm that, given some of the actions of the Turkish authorities in recent months, there will be no watering down of the justice and rule-of-law requirements of EU membership?
In conclusion, we have seen in recent days the real colour of this Government on this and other issues. Whether it is in relation to the incredibly vulnerable unaccompanied children and families seeking refuge in Europe or the Chancellor of the Exchequer trying to pay for his bonus for the wealthy by punishing disabled people, it appears that, time and again, this Government’s choices are driven by cynical politics and public image rather than economic necessity or indeed humanitarian concern.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord for their responses. First, I join the noble and learned Lord in his tribute to and concern for the people in Turkey who have suffered at the hands of recent terrorist attacks.
I start by emphasising that a major development came out of the Council meeting last weekend. For the first time, there is now a serious and comprehensive proposal to deal with this very serious migration and refugee crisis in Europe. We, the United Kingdom, played a part in getting the programme in place, and we are proud that we are at the table and doing just that. As has been acknowledged, if it is properly implemented, the deal with Turkey will break the business model of those very wicked people, the people smugglers, by breaking the link between getting in one of their boats and getting resettlement in Europe. The purpose of that is to deter the most desperate people—the noble Baroness is absolutely right—from embarking on a very perilous journey to find refuge. This European Union programme for refugees in Turkey is comprehensive, and builds on the bilateral support that the United Kingdom is already providing to the many Syrian refugees in Turkey. One thing that is important for me to acknowledge, which is in a way a response to some of the points that have been raised by the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord, is the generosity of the people of Turkey in providing that refuge to so many people in their country. What we and the European Union are doing by introducing this programme and providing the financial support for Turkey is for that money to go very much to providing respite, refuge and an alternative, albeit temporary, way of life, until those very desperate people can return to their country.
The noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord asked how we could ensure that this new programme could comply with international and European law. Of course, there is no way that we would sign up to any scheme that was not compliant with international law—and nor would any member of the European Union or the European Union itself. Of that we can be confident. As for the support to those who arrive in Greece and seek refuge and asylum there, the new processing centres or hotspots will include interpreting advice and ensure that they are all treated as individuals, in terms of their cases, as international law requires.
The noble Baroness asked about Turkish travel documents. Clearly, most of the people coming from Turkey are from Syria, but there are people coming through that route from other countries who are not from Syria. For the one-for-one scheme to apply, when a refugee from Syria is returned to Turkey, another refugee has the opportunity to be settled in Europe. Those who use that route who are not from Syria, whether they come from Afghanistan or Pakistan, will be returned to Turkey but not be part of that scheme.
The noble and learned Lord asked how quickly people would be processed. I do not have any further details on how the scheme will be implemented at the moment, except to say that the implementation phase now is under way, which is one of the things that the United Kingdom is contributing to—actually getting that expertise there on the ground, to assist Greece in being able to process people. The noble Baroness asked about support to Greece so that it can handle this situation. That is very much part of this arrangement, and we have contributed additional funds to Greece for that purpose.
We can be confident that this programme is a response to the leadership that our Prime Minister took in Europe to come up with a plan very much targeted at addressing the root cause of the terrible situation and crisis in Europe at the moment. We have to deal with the political situation in Syria, clearly, but we have to support people as far as we can in countries close to their own country and break this terrible, wicked scheme, which criminals are making money out of and which puts so many people at risk.
On the other points that were raised, and on what the noble Baroness said about the tampon tax and VAT on sanitary products, and the story that she relayed from the time of the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, in the Treasury, I find that absolutely shocking. I cannot believe that razor blades are considered essential and sanitary wear not. I also find it quite surprising to hear men on the television and in Chambers such as this using the word “tampon”. I still find that in itself quite a revelation, but I am pleased that finally after all this time we have been able to address that unfairness and do something about it.
In response to some of the points that the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord made about recent events, as I said in concluding the Prime Minister’s Statement, I say again that this is a one-nation Conservative Government, and we are very much determined to support everybody in this country. I make it clear to your Lordships’ House how proud I am to be a member of this Government, alongside everybody who sits around that Cabinet table.
Would it be fair to say that this is a very important moment for the European Union, having for the first time agreed something concrete, if very difficult to implement, in this Statement? It goes to show that, when we are at the table, we can play a positive part in the deliberations of the European Union, as a country, and the result in this case is one that we would not have been able to contribute to if we had not been a part. Therefore, the moral of the story is very clear: whether or not we were part of the problem, we are certainly shaping up as a European Union, together, to be part of the solution.
I certainly agree with the noble Lord that it is because we are there at the table that we have been able to be influential in coming up with this comprehensive plan to deal with this very serious situation. Not only is that good, because it makes sure that we can fight for Britain’s interests in coming up with a solution, but also, if we were not at the table, this problem would still exist, and we would not have been able to ensure that in its design we would protect the United Kingdom’s interests as well as supporting these very desperate and poor people who need Europe’s support.
Can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House explain why, notwithstanding her remarks just now, the Government stubbornly refuse to put their own efforts—their laudable humanitarian aid contribution and rather less admirable resettlement offer—squarely into a European policy framework, and then add a relocation effort under the criteria that my noble and learned friend mentioned? Surely, EU asylum policy is part of the European security agenda, on which the Prime Minister has rightly declared an intention to lead. Why cannot what we are doing be squarely in the European framework?
Because, my Lords, we work in Britain’s overall best interests, and we are seeking to assist Europe in making sure that, in the package as a whole, what Europe does in protecting its borders and supporting people is very much in line with what we believe is the right thing to do, while retaining control of how we support these refugees. That will in future be very much in line with what Europe is doing. It is Europe that is following our lead—but what we are able to do is to retain control ultimately of the number of people who come into this country. That is what the British people want us to do—to be able to influence but to retain control. That is why, to coin a phrase, it is the best of both worlds.
Could the Minister say whether she thinks that the Turkey deal is realistic? After the assessment of immigration status has been approved—either genuine refugee status or none—those who have been declined could amount in Europe to hundreds of thousands. They will have to return to Turkey, but suppose they just sit there and refuse to go to Turkey with their wives, their children and their sick parents. Will there be forcible repatriation? Whenever we have had to do this in Britain, there has been only a handful of cases a year and they are always very difficult. I should have thought that with hundreds of thousands it is well-nigh impossible.
I am sorry that my noble friend is quite pessimistic about the chances of this scheme working. It clearly requires a lot of expert planning to make sure it works properly. It will be regularly reviewed to ensure that it works. One of the main planks of this plan is for Turkey to protect its borders and ensure that people are not leaving there in the first place. The plan is not just about dealing with people once they get to Greece. It is about limiting the number who leave Turkey in the first place and about being very proactive in the water in terms of turning boats back before they have left Turkey’s shores. This is a comprehensive plan, and it has to be executed in a very comprehensive way.
My Lords, as the weather improves, the longer sea routes from Libya to Lampedusa, Sicily or Malta will increasingly be used. There may be a new Government, albeit a feeble Government, in Libya, but ISIS controls a substantial part of the coast, including the port of Sirte. How can we possibly hope for progress without the military defeat of ISIS, which plans to send jihadists from Libya to the European mainland? Can there be any serious progress without the military defeat of ISIS in Libya? What plans, if any, have we to do that?
The noble Lord is right to highlight that the root cause of all this is ISIS, or Daesh, and the appalling atrocities that it is performing in that part of the world. There is now a new Prime Minister in place in Libya and a new unity Government have just been established. The Foreign Secretary has already been in touch with the new Prime Minister. We stand ready to assist in Libya, but we will not take any action there without it being in response to a request. Clearly, if there was any extension of any activity in that part of world, the Prime Minister would want to return to the House of Commons. In the mean time, we have increased our presence as part of the NATO regime off the coast of Libya to try to do more to tackle smuggling before people leave the Libyan coast.
My Lords, I confess my heart sank slightly when the first sentence of the Statement said that this was a migration crisis affecting “continental Europe”. However, since the rest of the Statement said that it is quite clearly a crisis that affects the whole of Europe, I think we can pass that over in silence.
The Government have until now attached and still attach huge importance to taking Syrian refugees only from countries such as Jordan and Lebanon with the co-operation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I think it is a bit excessive that they refuse even to contemplate those who reach Europe. Does the Statement mean that from now on they will accept refugees in Turkey who are registered as being genuine refugees? Will our 20,000—I am not seeking to raise the issue of numbers—include refugees taken from camps in Turkey and thus, of course, be helpful to the commitments that the European Union has entered into to help Turkey handle the increased number of refugees it will get when many are returned from Greece?
Yes, my Lords, we will of course take refugees from Turkey. Some of the refugees we have already received as a consequence of the Syrian crisis will be based in Turkey because they will be in some of the camps which are outside Syria on the border with Turkey. I can certainly reassure the noble Lord on that.
My Lords, following the events of the weekend, I wonder whether the Leader of the House can imagine with what delicious schadenfreude we on these Benches recall Mr Osborne’s comment in the Budget that he had abolished the Liberal Democrats. I bet he is missing us now for we could be relied on in government whereas it is perfectly clear that his shambles of a party cannot.
Turning to refugees, the Government’s case for refusing to assist a single refugee currently fleeing from the Syrian battlefield has been that to do so would encourage more to come. Since by the Government’s own admission the Turkish scheme overcomes that problem, will we play any part in it and, if not, what dishonourable fig leaf of an excuse will they now raise in order not to assist a single refugee coming now from the Syrian battlefield?
I completely reject the way the noble Lord has described what we have done and what we are committed to do. We are supporting refugees from Syria in two very clear ways: first, by providing financial support and aid to those who are based in these camps at a rate unmatched by any country in Europe and second only to the United States. Our resettlement programme, which we put in place last year, has already started to deliver refuge to people who were in camps near Syria to a greater degree than that of those countries in Europe which were party to the relocation scheme. It is working.
If children who have fled from Syria and are in mainland Europe and have claimed asylum have family ties to the United Kingdom, our policy is to assist them in being reunited with their family, but they have to claim asylum in the country they are in. That is the policy, but it also reflects how much support we want to give.
As to the noble Lord’s comments on the Liberal Democrats, the Budget did a huge amount to ensure that we are supporting future generations of this country. We have increased funding for our schools, we have taken yet more low-paid people out of tax, we have frozen fuel duty to help hard-working people and we are helping the poorest to save. We have done all that on our own in government, and we will continue to do that and to deliver our long-term economic plan because that is what people voted for, that is what they want from us and that is what will secure their future and that of everybody in this country.
My Lords, I suspect I am not the only one in your Lordships’ House who is grateful to the Prime Minister for having reminded us of the decisions of the two previous EU Council meetings and the number of people who were going to be helped as a result of those decisions and for telling us of the paltry number of people who actually have been helped. Given that stark contrast, does my noble friend really believe that the decisions taken this time are in practice going to turn out to be effective, as the other two sets of decisions have apparently not been?
My Lords, I believe they will be. The proof will be once this is fully implemented. The reason why I believe it will be effective is because this new European programme reflects the programme that we have already adopted, which is seeing better results than that which has been already used in Europe.
My Lords, I would refute what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has said about the Budget. All independent commentators say that it will exacerbate intergenerational strife.
In relation to the Statement, I do not think the noble Baroness has answered the question from my noble friend Lady Smith on the number of people who have already been welcomed to this country. I personally welcome the agreement with Turkey, but I am concerned that little or no heed seems to have been given to the situation in Turkey itself in relation to human rights, good governance, free media and the rule of law. Of course I deeply regret the violence that is now taking place in Turkey, but the Turkish Government must always pay heed to their obligations under international law, not just to the refugees, who are hugely important, but also to their own citizens.
The noble Baroness is right. That is why progress will not be made on the part of the deal that includes Turkey’s accession to the EU until Turkey has complied with all the demands laid out for it to meet, and they have been in place for a very long time now. All Europe—including the UK, which has long been a supporter of Turkey’s accession to the EU—recognises that Turkey has a huge amount to do before it would qualify for that membership. On the concerns that the noble Baroness raises about Turkey more generally at this time, yes, there are issues that have been raised, such as freedom of speech or the arresting of journalists, and we have heard about some of them and debated them in this Chamber. Those are all of great concern, but at the same time that does not detract from the generosity that Turkey has shown to the people of Syria. We need Turkey to continue providing that refuge to people. Yes, we need to continue to apply pressure on the matters that concern us regarding human rights, but we must not do so in way that somehow undermines the very positive work that Turkey is doing in support of very desperate people.
My Lords, to follow up on the previous question, I read in the press cuttings this morning that a proposal has been brought forward by the Turkish Government that politicians and journalists could also be prosecuted for abetting terrorism if they say anything that even mildly suggests there might be two sides to the story. I speak as a long-standing friend of Turkey, but urge the Government not to lose sight of the increasing authoritarianism that I detect in that country. It is in our interests to firmly remind our friends in Turkey that the properly applied rule of law is an absolute precondition not only for coming into the EU, which is self-evident, but for being a part of the international polity of nations.
My noble friend is right to highlight these issues. As he will understand, it is not inconsistent for this Government both to raise concerns about any kind of abuse or human rights issues that exist in Turkey and at the same time to work with that country in order for it to provide the support that we think is essential to the people fleeing Syria.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is an important legal snag that has been overlooked? European legislation requires that those now being dealt with in Greece should have a right of appeal. That is in the reception directive. Will the Government therefore take steps to get that directive amended?
The noble Lord raises a point of detail that I am sure is being properly addressed in the normal processes. If I have anything I can add to that, I will of course write to him.
Will the noble Baroness explain how the agreement will effectively break the smugglers’ business model, when it appears that it will do little to reduce the underlying demand for those smugglers? Would it not be more effective, and more in line with human rights principles, to introduce safe and legal routes, as mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, including the expansion of family reunion, which we will be debating shortly? Would such an approach not do more to make the smugglers redundant?
This scheme is all about making those smugglers redundant. We do not want people to think that the only way for them to leave the camps and find refuge in Europe is to get into a boat and pay money to criminal gangs and put their own lives at risk. We want to ensure that in the neighbouring countries, whether Jordan or Turkey, those camps provide a suitable way of life, albeit not at all what anyone would actually want, temporarily for them until they can go back to their own countries. Ultimately we want to see a thriving Syria. We want Syria to be back up and running in the way that it was before this terrible war and outbreak of terrible atrocities took place. If we encourage everyone to come to Europe, that is not going to work.
My Lords, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will know that Turkey does not apply the Geneva convention to non-EU citizens. Do the full rules of the Geneva convention apply to the scheme that has just been agreed and, if not, which protections are not given to those people who are sent back?
I will have to write to the noble Lord about that.