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Child Refugees

Volume 782: debated on Thursday 27 April 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the situation regarding child refugees in the Calais and Dunkirk areas, and whether they will take immediate steps to allow a significant number to enter the UK.

My Lords, in 2016, the UK transferred more than 750 children from France as part of comprehensive support for the Calais camp clearance. The UK also offered support to France following the recent fire at Dunkirk. We continue to work closely with the French to transfer eligible children under Section 67 of the Immigration Act and the Dublin regulation. The fastest route to safety is to claim asylum in France.

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government announced in a Written Ministerial Statement today that a further 130 children would be taken into this country under Section 67 of the Immigration Act, even if the reason is the Home Office having to hang its head in shame because it made an administrative error as part of collating the figures. That comes out of “Yes Minister”. Will the Government now reconsult local authorities, because many local authorities, not just in England but in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have expressed a willingness to take more child refugees? Is not the Minister aware that many representations have been made recently about the availability of local authority places?

The administrative error is most unfortunate, and for that I apologise. I would not want that to happen. The good news is that we have an additional 130 places, and I think we should all be very pleased about that. The important thing here is that no child has been disfranchised. Any eligible child has been taken thus far, and 200 children have been taken so far, so we have not even got to the figure of 350. I would not want noble Lords to think that any child had been disfranchised because of this administrative error, which is, as I said, most regrettable.

On the consultation, we have consulted local authorities. For the record, I can tell noble Lords that there are 4,000 unaccompanied children in local authority care as we speak. Some local authorities, such as Kent and Croydon, host a disproportionate number of children. We are always very glad to hear from local authorities coming forward to take children through the national transfer scheme or to take refugee children, but it is not as though we have not consulted properly. I know that the Immigration Minister wrote to all local authorities, a national launch event was held, and more than 10 regional events were held in every part of England, as well as one in Scotland and one in Wales.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of reports last week in the context of child refugees that an assumption was being made that, if such a child was disabled, they would be debarred because they would be regarded as too burdensome. Will she take the opportunity to deny with all possible strength that that could be the Government’s policy?

My Lords, it would never be the Government’s policy—I do not think any Government’s policy—to disfranchise a disabled child because they were too burdensome. A child would be assessed under the criteria of either Dubs, Dublin or the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme. No child would ever be disenfranchised because they were disabled. I can very strongly confirm that.

I have two questions for the Minister. Is she aware that Help Refugees will press ahead with its pending court case, as freedom of information data show that further clerical errors exist? Secondly, will the Government accept that we have a moral and legal duty to these children to reopen the Dubs scheme to ensure that these errors are ironed out once and for all and that we act with utmost haste in bringing these unfortunate children to the UK? The Government have been far too slow in actioning those points.

My Lords, as my first Answer explained, we have not closed the Dubs scheme. We have 200 children here and there is potential for another 280 to arrive under the additional numbers. I look forward to the outcome of the court case and would not want to comment on it at this stage.

My Lords, France or Europe are not some war-torn country, so I am delighted that refugees are able to get to a place of safety, whether in France or here. My concern is that the most vulnerable children and women are still in Syria and on the borders of Syria. What support have the Government given in that vital work?

I am very pleased to be able to do that. My noble friend is absolutely right that the most vulnerable are still in the regions. Last year, the former Prime Minister made an announcement to double the amount of assistance going to the region to £2.4 billion—double the amount that it had been previously. My noble friend makes exactly the right point that we should be sending help to the regions where it is most needed.

First, I think it would have been better if the Government had come with an Oral Statement to the House on this issue rather than putting it in a Written Statement just before we are about to cease sitting, as this is an issue of considerable interest to the House. We discussed this in the House on 9 February, after the Government said a Written Statement in the Commons:

“Local authorities told us they have capacity for around 400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children until the end of this financial year”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/17; col. 10WS.]

That would have been 2016-17. I asked the Minister:

“What capacity have local authorities told the Government they have for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the 1917-18 financial year on the basis that the current level of government funding is continued?”.—[Official Report, 9/2/17; col. 1861.]

I did not get a direct reply to that question. The Minister said that the Government were in constant touch with local authorities. Can she give us the figure? What capacity have local authorities told the Government that they have for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the next financial year, 2017-18, on the basis that the current level of government funding is continued?

My Lords, as my honourable friend in the other place outlined in the Written Ministerial Statement yesterday, the capacity for Section 67 children is 480. As for future commitments, obviously we are hours from Prorogation and I cannot make any future declarations at the Dispatch Box, much as I would want to. Those figures will be forthcoming should we be successful in the general election.

My Lords, the Minister said that there are 4,000 children in foster care. Are these 4,000 asylum-seeking, unaccompanied youngsters, as we voted on in the recent Act, and is she aware that of the children dispersed in France, 600 have made their way back to Calais because they have not been accepted in a very friendly way? Can the she answer those two questions?

I am not sure why children who had been accepted for local authority accommodation here would want to go back to Calais. I am sure that there are various reasons for that.

Sorry, I have slightly misheard the noble Lord’s question. He asked me, first, whether there are 4,000 unaccompanied children in local authority care in this country. Yes, there are. Other children who were not eligible for either Dubs or Dublin have been dispersed within France.

My Lords, the debates that we have from time to time on this issue focus almost exclusively on local authorities, suggesting that they are the only and the best providers. Is that the case? If so, what is the arrangement by which other providers can link into the system in order to increase the number of places available?

I am glad that my noble friend asked that question, because one thing that the Government have been very keen to promote is the community sponsorship scheme, which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken part in, taking in Syrian families in Lambeth Palace. In fact, in my own local authority in Trafford we also have a community sponsorship scheme. I never let the time pass up without encouraging noble Lords to tell of any community sponsors they know who might be willing to take families.