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Child Refugee Resettlement

Volume 771: debated on Tuesday 10 May 2016


My Lords, I shall now repeat as a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given earlier today by my right honourable friend the Minister for Immigration on child refugee resettlement from Europe. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, as I said last night, the Government are at the forefront of assisting and protecting vulnerable children, wherever they are. As the House is aware, last week the Prime Minister said that we will work with local authorities on plans to resettle unaccompanied children from France, Greece and Italy. We have said we expect the first children to arrive before the end of the year. We have not said that it will take until the end of the year for them to arrive. As I made clear to the House, we are working hard to see isolated children reunited with family, and children at risk of exploitation and abuse come to the UK as quickly as we can, but we have to be satisfied that they will be able to receive appropriate care and support when they arrive.

The revised Dubs amendment to the Immigration Bill obliges us to consult with local authorities. We must ensure that we fulfil our obligations to children who are already in the UK, as well as ensuring that we have the right support for those who may be brought to the UK from Europe. The provisions in the Bill by their nature mean that we have to consult others before finalising our plans, but that does not imply that we will delay getting on with this. We will be contacting council leaders in the coming days. I have already spoken to the Local Government Association on this matter.

We have always been clear that we must do nothing that inadvertently creates a situation in which families see an advantage in sending children ahead, putting their lives at risk by attempting perilous journeys to Europe. That is why only those present in the EU before 20 March will be eligible for resettlement, and even then only when it is in their best interests to come to the UK. This will avoid creating a perverse incentive for families to entrust their children to people traffickers.

We have already starting consulting relevant NGOs, UNHCR, UNICEF and other member states on how best to implement this legislation. Last Friday, I met the Greek Government in Athens to discuss how best we can make progress quickly. We are already working to identify those whom we can help. We have an ongoing plan with France to improve our joint response to children in Calais, accepting more than 30 transfer requests since February, with more than 20 already arrived. We will be working with France over the coming days and weeks to increase the identification of children in France who have family here so that we can bring them over.

In addition, the UK has been playing its full part in supporting European neighbours to provide support to those who have arrived. We have provided nearly £46 million of funding to the Europe-wide response to help the most vulnerable, including children and infants. In addition, the £10 million DfID fund announced on 28 January will support UNHCR, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee to work with host authorities to care for and assist unaccompanied or separated children. Of course, this is on top of our Syrian resettlement programme and the children at risk resettlement scheme, designed to resettle up to 3,000 children at risk from the Middle East and North Africa, where it is deemed in their best interests. The Government remain committed to making a full contribution to the global refugee crisis.

We are already acting to implement the Bill amendment. We have started discussions with local government. We have begun work with European partners and NGOs to support effective implementation. We will bring refugee children to the UK as quickly as it is safe to do so. I am proud that the commitment of this country and this Government to help those in need both within and outside Europe stands comparison with any other country in the world”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the Commons earlier today. We appreciate and welcome the steps that the Government are taking. In the Commons yesterday, the Government confirmed that they were accepting the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Dubs which was passed in this House. They also said that they would urgently consult others prior to bringing forward more detailed proposals and that a meeting of the Local Government Association was scheduled for later this week.

It appears that 10 Downing Street has now told the Daily Telegraph that the first children will be arriving by the end of the year, which is a totally different tenor of response to that given in the Commons, which was all about urgency and getting on with it as quickly as possible. Will the Government tell us the estimated timetable for implementing my noble friend’s amendment, which the Government have accepted? Will the Minister also say whether it will be an objective to take in at least the first 300 children before the start of the school year in September, since it will not assist the position of such children if they have to join a school well into the start of the school year?

Finally, 157 children have been identified by Citizens UK as being in Calais and having family connections here. I appreciate that earlier a Minister said he could not comment on the figure of 157, but will the Government give an assurance that they will take prompt action to ensure that those children in Calais with a valid legal claim for reunification are reunited as a matter of urgency with their families here under the Dublin arrangements?

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, who asked a number of questions. The Daily Telegraph picked up the No. 10 statement and misconstrued it. No. 10 said that we would proceed with this programme as quickly as possible and that by the end of the year we will have seen children arriving in this country. That does not mean to say that it will be 31 December before any child arrives.

It is difficult for me to define the estimated timetable because of the need, as specified by the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to consult local authorities before we are in a position to say how many children can be accommodated. I can only assure the noble Lord that we need to take necessary but not undue time to do that, that we are already engaged with the French authorities to ensure that the vulnerable children who I know the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, wants us to prioritise are identified as quickly as possible, and that we will do the same in Greece and Italy.

I cannot, as the noble Lord will therefore surmise, be specific about whether we will admit 300 children before the start of the school year. The very nature of this announcement means that we must take the necessary time to consult others before bringing forward final proposals on how to implement. All I can say is that we will not only implement the letter of this amendment but its spirit, and we will do so enthusiastically and as speedily as we can. Naturally, as I have already emphasised, those children in Calais are likely to be the first candidates.

My Lords, Save the Children, following extensive research and consultation, concluded that if the UK took 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from within Europe, that would be a fair and proportionate number. I accept, as the Minister said, that there has to be consultation with local authorities, but we also heard earlier this afternoon in this Chamber that charities and other mechanisms can be used to help find homes for these children. Can the Minister tell the House how many of these children the Government intend to take: the smallest number they can get away with or the UK’s fair share?

It is not a question of the smallest number we can get away with. I hope that I have indicated that we are pursuing this amendment in its proper spirit. We have always been clear that we share the objective of identifying and protecting vulnerable refugee children wherever they are—our efforts to date have been designed to do just that—and we have heard many times about the measures that the Government have taken, particularly in the Middle East.

However, we were very clear that setting an arbitrary target, particularly one as high as 3,000, was the wrong approach. We cannot simply wade in and select some children whom we think would be better off in the UK, especially when some local authorities already care for very high numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—which in some cases is stretching services to breaking point. That is why we believe that the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is the right one. We have to consult with local authorities before we can determine the number that we can accommodate, and we must observe the best-interests principle as well.

My Lords, I very much appreciate the way in which the Home Secretary, the Immigration Minister and Home Office officials have put me in the picture throughout this process. It was gratifying, not in a triumphalist sense, to see the Home Secretary’s name on the amendment in the Commons yesterday evening.

The Minister put his finger on the right phrase—that the Government intend to accept not only the letter but the spirit of the amendment. I will plead only that, given that we now have officials working with the French authorities, it might be possible to speed up the process of identifying children in Calais who have relatives in Britain and to help them to get to Britain in time for the school term in September. Surely that would be the right thing to do. The Minister cannot make a promise but I hope that he will accept the spirit of what I am saying and that the Government will do their best accordingly.

I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Clearly it would be desirable to ensure that those children who are most vulnerable and in need of help and support can arrive in this country in time for the school year, but he will understand that at this stage of the exercise I cannot give firm undertakings to that effect. All I can do is to say that we will use our best endeavours in that direction.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is a national responsibility to do what we reasonably can to help those children who are single, unaccompanied and already in Europe? Can he give an assurance that the costs will not fall on individual local authorities, but will be accepted as a national burden? The issue of the children coming to this country who eventually reach the age of 18 was raised earlier at Question Time, but we did not get a very clear or very acceptable answer from the Government. After we have invested so much resource, care and education in these children, surely they should be allowed to stay here and not have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads that they might then be returned.

My Lords, on the question of costs, as the noble Lord will know, the central Government fund local authorities who care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. There is no reason why the implementation of this amendment should place unique challenges on local authorities. Of course, funding arrangements will be discussed with local authorities. The Home Office will engage with local authorities as it goes forward with the main question of how many children can be accommodated. Any additional flow of unaccompanied children needs to be aligned with existing schemes.

As regards giving a pre-emptive undertaking on what will happen to children when they reach the age of 18, I can say only that each case for asylum has to be considered on its individual merits. Where someone demonstrates a genuine fear of persecution, protection will be granted but, where someone is found not to be in need of our protection, we would expect them to leave the UK voluntarily.

My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm that he is having close discussions with the Welsh Government on these matters, seeing that many of the responsibilities lie there? We in Wales are anxious to play our part in this programme. Given the emphasis that he placed on co-operation with the French authorities, is he confident that in the unfortunate event of a Brexit vote that co-operation will continue?

My Lords, the answer is yes and yes. We are in touch with the devolved Administrations—not only the Welsh authorities but those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I can of course give the noble Lord the undertaking about our dialogue with the French, which will continue whatever happens.